When they got off the Pike at Copley, Alan had expected to drop Daria at the subway, but she insisted on staying with him.
“I think you want to be a voyeur,” he told her.
“Maybe, but I’m still not going.”
The path of least resistance was also the path to West Newton Pavilion, where, inside the large, round, pink-marble lobby with a low ceiling, Daria said aloud what she was idly thinking: “I think I know that girl.”
The hospice was a glitz palace, with a doorman and valet parking. Its rotunda was empty save for a young woman in skin-tight jeans and a sheer, diaphanous blouse draping in multiple layers. Her shiny light brown hair draped around her shoulders in layers as well. She was talking on the phone, walking in a circle.
Alan blinked a few times. “Me too.”
He walked over, leaving Daria where she stood with her overpacked carryall on the floor. “Meredith,” he said. The place was an echo chamber. Sound bounced off everything hard and smooth.
She turned to look at him. He had always thought she was prettier than her mother and would be even more beautiful as a woman fully opened out. Now, from this oddly orchestrated remove of time and familiarity, he could see that she was nowhere near as beautiful as Terry had once been. And it struck him: It’s my genes. My fault.
“I gotta go, honey. Love you, too.” There was no shock of recognition, just a cold, determined stare. “Are you my father?”
She looked him up and down. “You look so different. Nice suit.”
He didn’t know of any gesture to lighten any aspect of the situation. He also didn’t know why he’d put on a suit that morning. At least he wasn’t wearing a tie.
She glared over at Daria. “That your girlfriend?”
“That’s my co-worker. I gave her a ride so she could visit her mom for Mother’s Day.”
“What’s she doing here then?”
“She offered to lend support.”
She laughed. “People feel sorry for you?”
He looked down at his shoes. “I’m sorry about your mother.”
She looked away and fluffed her silky hair. “We assumed you were dead.”
“I didn’t have any money left. I guess I was.”
“Well let’s not go there.”
“Let’s not,” he agreed, nodding. “You look well. How are you? What kind of work do you do? I’ll bet you’re married.”
She laughed and looked away. “I don’t have to work. I’m Meredith Rochard.”
This pleased him, if only because it meant she would live comfortably. Cory Rochard had been a boyfriend one summer in high school, the son of a fantastically rich acquaintance of Alan’s.
“So you married Cory,” he said smiling. “That’s great.”
She laughed again, shaking her head. “Not Cory. I married Jake.”
He swallowed hard, so that he could hear it inside both ears. Jake Rochard was at least a decade older than Alan, probably two. A philanderer, what Carl Meacham called “a real slut of a man.” “Even better,” said Alan with that false good cheer people dole out daily. “He’s financially set.”
She cleared her throat. “Real set.” Then she looked around. “Jake’s the reason Mom’s here. She could never hold onto any money.”
“Is your brother . . . OK?”
“Ryan lives with his girlfriend, Erica, in Providence.”
He felt like an amnesiac pulling out names that happened to be there on his tongue but that his mind didn’t recognize. “Erica Branstrator?”
“You have a good memory.”
“She has a lot of money—at least her father does.”
“Did,” she corrected without any feeling. “He died—sometime, I can’t remember. So you’re right about the money.”
“So what does Ryan do?”
She pursed her lips and looked around with a shrug. “Nothing.”
He couldn’t even think of what to say.
“Don’t even start on him,” she said. “He’s the only old family I have.”
“You had your mother all these years.”
She looked away. “She’s a selfish bitch.”
“So maybe I’ll see Ryan here.”
“You know his thing about hospitals.”
“He hasn’t come?”
Now came the manifestation of childhood annoyance he knew better than anything. “How many times do people have to tell you about the pond water?”
“Ah.” He nodded.
They’d been at a state park in Vermont—Quechee, near the Simon Pierce factory that was Terry’s primary reason to want to go there. Ryan was a toddler. They were having a picnic on a blanket. Terry was holding Meredith, who was crying. And it wasn’t pond water; it was some kind of brook that Ryan drank from, by putting in his hand and sucking his fingers. Alan could tell something was wrong with the kid. “He’ll be OK,” Terry kept saying, struggling to keep the baby happy. “I think we should take him to a hospital.” “I think you’re overreacting.” Finally, Alan lifted Ryan under his arm and ran with him like a football. He left Terry and Meredith at the park and drove forever to get to a hospital. These were the days before cell phones. Of course there was hell to pay with Terry. But Ryan nearly died. When he was older he always loved to be told this story about the time he almost died, the time he was too young to remember. And when he was in high school and his grandparents were terminally ill in the hospital, “the pond water” became the convenient excuse for why Ryan Gleason could not go near a hospital. The memories of the trauma were too severe.
Meredith looked at him with intent. “You forget that things like the pond water make a difference in your whole life. Like the way you liked my friends better than me.”
“I always loved you, Meredith.”
“Amanda Porter,” she said with conviction. “You had a thing for her.”
He breathed in and exhaled heavily. “She was a teacher’s pet girl,” he said, looking again at his shoes. “I’m sure the way she sought adult approval was obnoxious to other kids.”
“Someone said on Facebook that she’s the youngest tenor professor at Holy Cross.”
“Fuck you with correcting me.” She looked at the phone in her hand instinctively, as if it might suddenly be Skyping a face that agreed with her. “You really thought I was a shit, didn’t you? Ryan, too. You felt that way about both of us. Admit it.”
The time he really did think she was a shit she was already in college. It was summer, and she drove home drunk from parties and clubs all the time. One Sunday morning the neighborhood was heartbroken to learn that the Dewhursts’ three-legged bulldog, Sledge, had been killed by a hit-and-run driver the night before, when he’d been let out through the sliding glass doors to pee. And then later that day, when Meredith was up and stumbling around the kitchen half-dressed, she told Ryan, “I hit something last night, an animal.” It wasn’t long after this that someone poisoned the Gleasons’ dog, Critter.
“No, I didn’t,” said Alan. “Not with either of you. But I was disappointed that time you didn’t go to the Melissa Etheridge concert with your grandmother. You really broke her heart.”
Her laugh bounced around the rotunda something fierce. “What kid wants to go to a dyke concert with her grandmother?”
“You wanted to go. You loved her songs.”
“I was stupid and little when I liked them. Gram got the tickets a year too late.”
“That was one thing you two had in common. She was making an overture, Meredith. You should have recognized how much she was going out of her comfort zone to do this for you.”
She smirked. “Comfort zone? What the fuck is that?” She paused to look around. “Look, I was a tween, OK? End of story. I don’t know why you care. It wasn’t even your mother. Mom didn’t really care.”
He sighed and nodded, for she was right that her mother didn’t care.
Now he could see that she’d nailed it—her mother’s look of contempt. “You’re the reason she was a mess,” she said. “All she did was shop because you never let her work.”
He shook his head decisively before speaking. “That’s not true. She wanted to stay home with her kids.”
“And you think you were the world’s best husband?”
“No, I wasn’t.” He paused and pulled at the collar at the back of his neck. “I had affairs, Meredith. From 1986 to 2003.” He paused again. “I was unhappy all that time.”
“Oh, poor baby.” He almost had to turn away from the face she was making. “Well, why don’t you go up and see her then? I’m leaving. I’ve got to pick up my son.”
“You and Jake have kids?”
“We have a son, Delano.” She tightened her lips like she was trying to suppress something. “We’re worried he may be autistic.”
“I hope he’s not.”
She tilted back her head so she could plow sections of hair with her thumb and forefinger. “You and his daddy.”
He looked at the floor. “You used to call me Daddy.”
She laughed and nodded toward the ceiling. “She’s involved with this Asian guy, Mom is—or was. He’s kind of trash money. I don’t even want to know about it.”
“How’d you know?”
“Someone told me.”
“Well, I’d avoid him if I were you.”
He watched as she walked out into a car that was just delivered. He clearly remembered the phone conversations a long time ago when Daddy was away on business. “Say you miss me?” He always had to coax it out of her.
He looked over at his supportive sideshow friend. He nearly didn’t have the wherewithal to approach her. “Daria, I’m going up now to see Terry, so you should be on your way. This is your town. You know your way.”
He knew she had heard everything, whether as a friend or a voyeur. “I’m sorry, Hap.”
He informed the desk people upstairs who he was. A woman told him that Terry wasn’t going to regain consciousness, that it could be any moment she would go, and that it was unfortunate more family weren’t coming to sit with her. “Just the girl today and last week with her little guy. I’m afraid that was it.”
“What about Panda?”
The woman looked confused. “I don’t think she’d really care about stuffed animals at this point.”
He nodded as if that covered everything. “I see.”
The hushed feeling everywhere was the thing most familiar—everywhere, in every closet and bathroom stall. He would wake up and listen. Everyone was hunting wabbits with Elmer—that’s how they would go out of this world. Without a bang.
Her room was open to anyone who might stroll inside. He took that opportunity and regretted it instantly, for the smell of no exit was suffocating despite the cool air. She was so small—and white—lying on her side under a blue blanket. He didn’t think people who were dying would be on their sides. He was grateful he couldn’t clearly see her face and didn’t really try. “Criminally pretty” his brother had once declared. It was the reason Alan chose to stay with her when he was twenty-one and she a year older. She’s trapping you, Al. Any fool can see. ’course she’s criminally pretty.
He sat in the chair next to the bed. That he should live to be in this situation—this complete reversal of roles—was in some sense completely incomprehensible. There was a Kate Bush song that a lot of people knew: If I only could, I’d make a deal with God, and I’d get him to swap our places. He might have wished this at some incoherent moment back then, might have presented a deal to someone’s God. Frank’s God perhaps. Now was the first time he gave any thought to the fact that he’d broken his agreement with V2M by coming here. He wasn’t supposed to do this. He wasn’t supposed to be running up that road, running up that hill, running up that building.
Being in this kind of place reminded him that he’d received a valuable gift from one of the Dana-Farber residents. A book of poems by Jane Kenyon, who died of leukemia a little over a year after her diagnosis. He never read poems outside of college—only when one was printed on a graduation or a funeral program. Wedding programs never, since it was all a crock of shit. But he cried reading the Kenyon poems and the book front to back. He assumed she wasn’t a critically regarded poet since her work was so easy to read. When he could no longer hold a book or see words on a page, he asked people to recite the poems to him. His family wouldn’t do this so he had to rely on strangers—or when he was lucky (if a dying man can be considered lucky), Neddy’s wife, Gina. He had wanted the book kept next to him wherever he was moved, in the event a designated reader could be dredged up. But the book and he got separated early on, so that when he was alone and lonely in Philadelphia, he had to go out and find it all over again by himself.
He had been fighting then, in Philly, to hold on to his old self and fighting not to be his old self. He missed everything, even the misery, and felt less alone when he read the book:
like a vole picked up by a storm
then dropped three valleys
and two mountains away from home.
I can find my way back. I know
I will recognize the store
where I used to buy milk and gas.
When he was alone and lonely, he went to a shelter to get a dog like Critter and came back with a cat with cancer. It was going to be put down. They didn’t ask anyone to take the animal; Alan merely overheard technicians talk about “euthanizing Roland” like it was an everyday event. This was a kill shelter—not an oxymoron in that rough part of Philly. They couldn’t keep the animals alive but could give them interesting names during their abbreviated stays.
He knew a homeless man from his many visits to the shelter. He couldn’t remember the man’s name, but he had an old, overweight, unkempt golden Lab named Jason. Alan thought of the dog as Jason and the Golden Fleas, because Jason could never be kept clean of fleas. The man was a born-again Christian, and he kept telling Alan, “Ya need to be reborn! That’ll solve yer problems!” Alan told him, “I don’t want to be reborn. But maybe what I need is to be Frontline’d to relieve me of the fleas of wrath.”
Now he felt the stamina to look at Terry’s face. Even though he could not recognize it without brows or lashes, he did pose a question: “How did we raise two people who expect to be parented by the world?”
Hours passed, like that day at Paxton Place when he waited for her to come and take him home. He had expected her to cry, like in movies. Being terminally ill had made him so, so naive. You’d think it would have made him cynical. He really did believe it was morning in America.
He couldn’t bring himself to leave her. It seemed cruel to be left to die alone. His phone was saturated with everything—texts, mail, voicemail. At the moment he didn’t want to be Alan Hapgood. But then he never, ever wanted to be Alan Gleason again. Finally, at 9:15 p.m., he left.
He came out of the elevator to an empty lobby. Or almost empty. In a loveseat near a reading lamp, Daria and her carryall were still there. Having people care about you was such a responsibility. It almost made him want to go back inside the elevator.
“What are you reading?” he asked. She had a Kindle in her left hand and some kind of journal held open by her hand and a pencil with her right.
“Keep the Aspidistra Flying,” she said. “You know it?”
He laughed and nodded. “Orwell. That’ll certainly lift your spirits.”
“It’s because of Jude. He didn’t believe me when I said I read it.”
“So you’re reading it a second time just to show him.”
She smiled. “You OK?”
“Come on, I’ll drive you to your friend’s place.”
Real time made itself known from inside his jacket pocket, and Alan pulled out his phone to see the fifth successive call from Ted. “What’s up, man?”
The voice was loud and distraught. “Someone killed Frank. A Chinese man.”
“Where are you?”
“I’m here, at Frank’s place, the crime scene.”
The lobby’s echo made everything worse. “Stop shouting, Ted.”
“The guy smothered Frank when he was sleeping, in his bed. But Maxine heard the commotion and tackled him in hall. He fell down the stairs and broke his legs.”
“Frank’s neighbor who was getting fingerprinted. Hap, she told me the guy was rambling and kept saying Panda was blackmailing him. Frank told me about Panda, Hap. He told me a lot of stuff about you.”
Alan didn’t know what to say.
“This guy is dangerous, Hap. He’s killed an innocent man. Fuck! Frank—who in the world would want to kill Frank? You need to tell the cops down here what you know.”
“They’ll catch up with me.”
“I already talked to them.”
“Did you tell them about Panda?”
“No.” He paused. “And I didn’t tell them anything about you.”
Alan sighed. “I’m in shock, too. I loved Frank. We all did. Listen, call Jude.”
“I did. I’m meeting him in an hour.”
Immediately after signing off Alan was on the phone with Mariette: “Frank has died. Ted’s alone. Can you make sure he’s OK?” After a pause: “Yeah. I’m sorry too.”
Daria looked ready to cry. “I’m so sorry, Hap.”
“Come on, let’s go.”
“I heard what you told Meredith today. I heard what she said about Panda. I’m not l leaving you.”
“You go with your mother.”
“I don’t want to go with my mother.”
“I mean your friends.”
“You shouldn’t be by yourself right now. Do you want to come to my friends’ place?”
“Look, I’ve got a room at the Mandarin. Just a couple blocks away. It’s not going to do either of us any good you being with me.”
“He’s a killer, Hap. He may shoot you.” She paused and looked around searchingly at the cold pink stone. “Look, if you’re in line at a McDonald’s, I can be your eyes.”
He laughed. “I really appreciate that you’re willing to be my eyes.”
She was struggling to find an argument. “You need help.”
“If you don’t come with me, I’ll be an awful person and leave you here.”
At the moment he felt like he and his bespoke suit and expensive hand-tooled shoes were being pressed in a vise controlled by all the women he’d ever known. The affairs during Round 1 were off the map. Even in Round 2, when he was coming off the backstory of a priest, the girlfriends—comically high end, with every body part tended to on separate Google calendars—occurred in a constant stream. But you could erase all of these—erase the sex part that consumed so much of the narrative. What you were left with was a mother he rarely thought about, the wife he thought about much more than he wanted, and of course the daughters. The daughters, old and new, were what made his life Lear and not Fellini.
Now, after having seen Meredith and then having the convenient option on Daria as the new Amanda, he had to confront the fact that with Ethylynn, he was at the point of surrender. The girl was plainly devastated by the longing after and loathing of her father. Anyone could see her blatant need for a father to make love to her. The decent man stood up to this monumental temptation, this devious form of torture. Alan remained a decent man right until the day he told himself “I’m ready. Let’s do this.” For better or worse, that day was also the one before Ethylynn, like so many who traveled the world north of Cathedral Parkway, was, sadly for many but not unexpectedly for all, taken out of the game.