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Chapter 23

Despite telling Jude that he needed to spend a day thinking what to do, Alan already knew Wednesday night. He would have to go to Boston and see Terry—remove the blinders about what had become of his children. The thought of showing up there—wherever “there” played out—filled him with dread, as if he’d consented to be the first responder at a violent crime scene. He was worried about what he might learn about their lives. So much could go wrong in any one life before you even hit thirty. Dead or sick or imprisoned or missing or lost to drugs, booze, or the sex industry—the possibilities for ruin flowed abundantly in the land of the free.

That was that family, but this one posed an altogether different dilemma. He didn’t want them to suffer fallout because of his duplicity, but he worried more about the fact that each desperately needed something missing—something for which Hap had provided a stop-gap. Love and support—or the ironic version Alan had divined into being. He created this irony and then let the children play.

For some reason, the thing he felt worst about was bringing Daria into the fold, especially so close to the finale, and especially since she had a mother and stepfather who might be perfectly decent people. For this reason, his decision to drive to Boston Friday morning came with a literal rider to the agreement: Daria. He had decided for her even before he proposed the idea.

“It’s Mother’s Day on Sunday, and since I’m driving to Boston tomorrow morning, how about you go with me and visit your parents for the weekend? You can take Friday off and book yourself on the Acela coming back on Sunday, courtesy of Hap.”

He could tell she was taken aback by his call. “I don’t want to see my mother,” she told him. “She’ll bring me down.”

“Daria, go back to see your mother for Mother’s Day. Don’t be estranged.”

“I’m an estranged person period. My mother has nothing to do with it.”

The realization that it had already started to metastasize caused him to sigh. “I fear that working at Hap—or rather, being adopted into this family of mine—has made you romanticize estrangement.”

She laughed. “Maybe it’s made me romanticize being disliked by my co-workers.”

“Well, I don’t want that to be the case either. Plus, I’d like someone to keep me company on the drive.”

“I told you: On an ethics slide rule, my blood relations are freaks. The Coney Island family who pound nails into their heads.”

“Well that’s no reason not to give your mother some new nails for Mother’s Day.”

After some more back and forth, she relented. “OK,” she said. “What time?”

The next morning, when she leaned into his car near the Washington Bridge Bus terminal, she asked, “Is this a hybrid?”

“Yes,” he told her, motioning for her to put the bag in the back, “but don’t ask me anything about mileage.”

She shoved in her busting-at-the-seams carryall. “It’s very silvery.”

It was a beautiful, sunny day—a silvery one on which to be happy. The blue sky over the George Washington reminded Alan of looking through a View-Master when he was very young: Yosemite or Rushmore or the gleaming U.N. building—then like nothing else but now like an obsolete circuit board part. Whatever the American landmark, with the View-Master it was always the same blue to anchor your insatiable curiosity about elsewhere. Memories of 9/11 notwithstanding, blue skies over suspension bridges always came at the start of a movie, rarely the end.

“Mariette told me you did a webinar this week,” he said. “How’d it go?”

She wasn’t enthusiastic. “It was for Student Life directors at small colleges. All they did the whole time was tweet questions like idiots. And basically it was the things I was discussing in the webinar. I think they just wanted to network with each other. No one really wanted to #meetdaria.” She paused. “I hate Twitter.”

“I have the only four New Yorkers under thirty-five who hate social media. Why is that?”

“With the three of them that’s pretty easy: it’s social. With me, it’s that you can’t lie very effectively about your résumé on LinkedIn. There are way too many losers who commit their lives to exposing lies on the Internet.”

He laughed. “You—you would lie about your résumé?”

She turned to look at him. “You know what else I lied about? I’m staying with friends. I’m not visiting my mother.”

“She’s in Milton, right?”

“You know the Boston area?”

“Actually, yes. Pretty well.”

She had the expression of wanting to know more about him and Boston, but looking out the passenger window seemed to make it disappear. “I heard about the Columbia kid. I’m glad that turned out OK.”

“It’s hard to tell how close they are to going through with it. Usually, when they call, that means it’s over the fifty mark that they’re not. Whether it’s a little over or a lot, you can’t gamble.”

“I don’t want that to happen to me when I’m doing higher ed.”

“It’s never happened before, but then everything has a first.”

“Ted’s acting like there’s something the matter lately. Have you noticed? On Wednesday it was because of that, but then yesterday he went out somewhere looking really nervous. I hope he’s not sick.”

“Did you ask him about it?”

She made a face, laughed, and looked at him. “Are you kidding? He wouldn’t talk to me about anything personal. I know that sounds weird, given that the three of them are Overshare Central.”

“I like that—Overshare Central. You’re a good phrasemaker.”

“Thank you,” she said with a smile. “I wish it paid dividends.” She immediately went back to looking concerned, however. “Ted kept asking when Mariette’s plane was getting in. He wanted to talk to her, I guess.” She paused and added, “Even after she said such mean things during his drunk-mother video.”

Alan sighed at the familiar melodrama. “Ted’s in love with Mariette, and Mariette doesn’t want to love anyone.”

She stared at him.

“Sorry to be blunt, but that’s how I see it.”

“Jude thinks Ted’s gay.”

“Ah, I don’t know. Maybe he is, but he still loves Mariette.”

“And Mariette sleeps with Jude—or vice versa.”

“She doesn’t like him much.”

“I don’t like him much.”

“So you two should be friends then—Mariette, I mean.”

“She doesn’t like me.”

“She acts like that with everyone.”

“She was friends with Ethylynn.”

“Everyone was friends with Ethylynn.”

She looked out the window again. “How did Mariette kill her mother? Is that some big secret?”

“She pushed her out of a window. With a crutch.”

“Wow,” she said, turning her face toward him. “That’s not on the drop-down.”

He smiled. “I hope you don’t have secrets like that.”

Now she looked straight ahead. “My big secret is that I don’t have a group. I’m alone in the lunchroom.”

“You’re a very funny and engaging person, Daria. There should be no obstacles.”

She laughed. “My old boyfriend, Compton, he would pronounce ‘obstacles’ like ‘Pericles’. I don’t know why I found that so funny, but I did.”

“Why did he end up being an old boyfriend?”

She paused before answering, looking at the seatbelt strap she tugged with her hand. “He got tired of me.” Then she sighed. “I guess I was an experiment. I wasn’t the type of girl he normally went with—not alternative enough. His father’s Gunther Pruitt.”

He laughed. “Gunner Pruitt?”

“Yeah, right?” She laughed too, but quickly she realized that it wasn’t at all funny to her. “He made this big case like he was not the spoiled kid of privileged and connected parents. He told everyone he was cut off from being supported by Gunther. I mean, he was twenty-six and he never had any kind of real job, and he’s asking the world to pat him on the back because he’s not mooching off his father. And he didn’t see any difference between the boat I was in and the one he was in. He had no student loan debt and received his dividends via direct deposit—dividends!”

He smiled and shook his head. “Obviously he’s not the guy for you.”

That caused her to smile, as if a trickle of hope. “Jude’s like that too. He’ll end up with some pretty Ivy Leaguer named Mallory and they’ll keep on having sets of twins.”

He laughed, again shaking his head. “Somehow I have a hard time picturing that.”

“I just want the guy version of me. Why is that too much to ask?”

“It’s not,” he said. “Do you have any other prospects on the horizon?”

She shook her head. “My best friend’s a gay man. The only straight man in my life is Mark from Coffee Break French.”

“You’re learning French?”

“I know it, but I have a phobia about speaking it. Same for Italian. So I listen to Mark. He’s so nice and patient—and he’s even a dorky-looking guy. Balding with glasses and a paunch. And he’s Scottish, so the accent is even weirder.”

Alan laughed. “And you’re sure he’s not gay too?”

She shrugged. “It doesn’t matter, does it? Between the first time I got fired in New York and found another job to get fired at later, I’d listen to and speak with Mark and a glass of wine, like we were on a date. I watered down the wine with ice cubes because I had to make one bottle last a week.”

He laughed. “The Greeks drank watered-down wine because they drank so much of it. I learned that from Frank.”

“You really like Frank, don’t you?”

He smiled but didn’t answer. “What do you really like, Daria, besides Mark and Coffee Break French?”

Her face brightened with a thought. “Seeing old people at music festivals.”

“People like me?”

“Actually, younger than you, but still old.”

He laughed. “You shouldn’t be saying that when you’re about to turn thirty. You’ll be there soon enough.”

She turned her eyes toward him. “Why do you pretend like Hap’s some kind of scam?”

He cocked his head. “We’re hypocrites. We don’t buy into it.”

“Maybe not them, but you. You do. You’re happy.”

He laughed. “You’re telling me that?”

“I know these things. I can tell. I have this power. That’s why people fire me.”

“What power is this you have? What kinds of things do you know?”

“Well, I don’t think Ted’s gay either. And can I say, thinking people are gay is the simple, lame answer for anything. And you know what? Ten percent of them are gay, but they still have something they’re dealing with. You can’t just throw categories around when people have real issues.”

“Well said.”

“And I think the issue with Ted is that something weird happened with his mother when he was younger—something sexual. When I suggested this to Jude he was like an oak plank.”

“Jude is like an oak plank. But he’s smart in other ways.”

“But I still think you’re happy.” She laughed. “And if you know it clap your hands.”

He laughed with her. “What I am, Daria, is a professional. A player. I have a successful concept operation. I make good money and manage it well. I surround myself with talented people. I have a smooth life with no friction.”

“You really believe people do everything for revenge?”

“I know it. Although I admit they don’t realize their motives.”

“And that Americans are materialistic and unoriginal?”

He nodded. “Although that doesn’t mean I hate people.”

She shook her head. “I can’t figure you out. How did you come up with Hap as a thing to do?”

He laughed. “It’s a mystery-in-progress, Daria.” He slowed to change lanes. When he was accelerating again, he seemed to think more on the matter. “I think there’s no way to tell people how their lives will be fulfilling and will seem to them to have meaning. Luck and accident play such a huge, volatile part. Missed connections, opportunities not seized upon. Being one day too late. Not giving someone a second chance. Giving someone else an eighth and a ninth chance. There’s no one-size-fits-all, however much of a role neuroscience plays.”

“How do you know all this as a priest?” She paused. “You don’t have any degree beyond an S.J. Sorry, but I did stalk you online.”

“Don’t you know the story of Abe Lincoln? Taught himself the law.”

She looked skeptical. “I believe the conspiracy theorists. Abe was an alien who came to earth to hunt vampires.”

He smiled. “And emancipation was just collateral.”

Now she stared at him. “What are you doing in Boston?”

“Old business, I guess.”

“Unfinished?”

“Did they tell you, Ted and Jude?”

“I told you,” she said in frustration. “They don’t talk to me like I’m one of them.”

He was happy to hear her say she wasn’t one of them. But to lie to her seemed grossly unfair. “As you’ve no doubt guessed,” he began, “I had another life. In this other life, I had cancer and was dying. I had a wife and grown children. And they . . . well, they let me go.”

“What do you mean dying?”

“I was supposed to, but I didn’t. I got better. And now my wife is dying, and I want to see her.”

“How grown are your children?”

“They were twenty-two and twenty-three, seven years ago.”

She looked at him as if she might cry. “I’m really sorry they let you go.”

He shrugged and quickly glanced at her. “These things happen.”

Now she was obviously struck by something else. “How can you have kids that old? That’s my age.”

He looked like that was a mystery to him as well. “Terry and I got married because she was pregnant with Ryan. I was young. I graduated at twenty-one and had a son at twenty-two.” He paused. “We always lied to the kids, made like we were ‘hippies’ who eloped—that this was the reason there was no wedding. We moved the marriage date a year earlier. All they had to do was know a little bit about history. In 1982 there were very few hippies our age. They weren’t dim, my kids. Just not curious I guess. Not curious about anything.”

As he said this his mind conjured a crystalline picture of Terry at twenty-two—fun, pretty, up for all kinds of sex. So much energy, never a slacker. And for some reason she wanted him ferociously. He met her at a rock club near BU, the Paradise. A year out of school, she had no idea what she wanted to do with her life. She seemed a perfect wife for someone before he knew the proper definition of one. He didn’t necessarily want a wife and definitely not a baby. He wanted to make money and not end up like his father and brother. With the baby he knew that was a possibility—and he was entering the workforce at the worst possible time. The absolute worst.

Daria looked very confused. “Why did you tell people you were a priest then?”

He didn’t have any kind of credible lie for that. “I don’t know why I did anything at that time. You wouldn’t want to see what I looked like. I’d lost fifty pounds. I moved like an old man. Teeth fell out. I was alone and had nowhere to go. I suppose I was like your sideshow family, though no one would pay to see me.”

This seemed to put an end to the conversation for some miles. Finally, though, it was apparent that she couldn’t stand the silence. “You know that old R&B song ‘Sideshow’? See the man who’s been crying for a million years. It’s by Blue Magic.”

He smiled what for him was a happy smile. “I actually do know that song, Daria. But I never knew that the band was Blue Magic.”

“Well now you do.”

“So that’s me then, the million-year crier?”

She didn’t answer, looked out the passenger window. “Thanks for not asking me how I know that. I’m so sick of men thinking every woman’s a dumb bitch.”

He smiled. “Wasn’t there a lyric that goes See the girl who’s collected broken hearts for souvenirs?”

He looked at all the lanes of plates crisscrossing like swarms of insects before the toll plaza, and above this mortal coil the enormous blue sky. Years and years ago when he heard that song he thought it was by the Stylistics. Or the Spinners. The Temptations would be another assumption. Maybe even the Miracles. But Blue Magic—that was a name that never even entered his mind.

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