“Is this something private?” Now it was Jude standing in the doorway of Alan’s office under the fluorescent lights.
“God, you too?” asked Alan, blinking.
“Did Ted call you?” asked Mariette.
“Why would Ted call me?”
“It’s Sunday night,” said Alan. “Why are you here?”
Jude shrugged, planted where he stood. “Frank died. There was no place to bring a casserole.”
“You didn’t bring a casserole,” said Mariette.
Alan got up and switched on two table lamps and a floor lamp. “Turn off those damned overheads.”
As Jude flipped the switch, Ted arrived behind him, arms loaded with six-packs.
Jude made way for the beer. “And you guys weren’t even going to call me?”
“Actually,” said Ted, handing him a bottle, “no.”
Mariette stood and began the process, familiar to all, of twisting her hair into something that could be pinned up tight. “We’re mourning Frank,” she said. “There’s a lot of trauma in this room.”
Soon the four were assembled in a square circle of chairs.
“He was sixty-seven,” said Mariette. “That’s not really very old.”
“But it’s street-person years you have to count,” said Ted. “Probably on some ER conversion chart that comes out to be eighty-nine.”
Jude shook his head. “Frank got around though. He had a lot of energy. If he wasn’t passed out, he would’ve fought off the guy.”
Mariette looked bewildered. “He’s this puny little man—it doesn’t make sense. You almost feel sorry for him with his broken legs.”
Jude suddenly sat up straight and chipper. “Who knows what about this murder? Raise your hand.”
Mariette broke the ice. “Where were you since last night?” she asked Alan.
The Family looked to their leader, who knew his turn on the stand was nigh. “I drove back this morning. I just talked to the police at the Eighteenth.”
“Did you tell them about Panda?” asked Ted.
He looked down and shook his head.
“And your other life?” asked Jude.
He again shook his head.
“Did you find out anything else about their leads?” asked Ted.
He lifted one shoulder as if to scratch his cheek. “The guy they have in custody says he was doing it to pay off his loan shark. It seems Panda approached the loan shark.”
Mariette looked at Ted. “Tell him about the notebooks.”
Alan looked up. “What notebooks?”
“Frank had these notebooks—I don’t know what they were about—but he showed me where they were in a drawer. He made me promise I’d take them if anything happened to him. This was just Thursday, the day before it happened. And I went to his room yesterday to get them, and they were gone.”
“Was other stuff gone?” asked Jude.
“It didn’t look like,” said Ted. “His place is a complete rat’s nest of paper. But the drawer was definitely empty.”
“Maybe the cops took them,” said Mariette.
Ted shook his head. “How would they even know to go to that drawer? There were papers heaving out everywhere else on the desk. If they were gonna take stuff, they’d have cleared out the whole desk.”
“What do you think?” Mariette asked Alan.
He shook his head. “I’m sorry, but I just can’t talk about this now.”
“OK,” said Jude, again straight and chipper. “Let’s talk about Daria then. How much we hate her.”
Alan made a face at him. “Someone please call her.”
Mariette looked at Jude. “Call her.”
Jude clicked his phone and listened. “It’s Jude.” He paused. “No, no one died. At least no one new.” Pause. “So what’s up?” Pause. “Hold on.” To the group he said, “She’s getting off a bus at the Tick Tock.”
“Ask her to come over,” said Alan.
He went back to the phone. “We’re all at the office. You wanna swing by?” He glanced at all of them. “No, I don’t think you’re getting fired. Hold on.”
“No one’s getting fired, Daria,” Alan said firmly.
“Hear that? Yeah. Still alive and kicking.”
When Jude ended the call, Alan looked at each of them. “Be nice to her. She’s trying.”
Ted looked at Jude. “Tell him about how you want out.”
Jude looked at Alan. “He knows.” He paused. “It’s not even that I want out. I want something.”
Mariette, looking down, laughed under her breath. “He knows I want out.” She looked up at him. “Don’t-cha, Hap?”
Alan smiled at her. “I didn’t realize I was a warden here.”
“I think maybe we want you to tell us what to do next,” said Ted.
“Daria was right,” said Mariette.
They all looked at her. “She was worried about when eventually is going to come.”
After some silence, Ted spoke. “Remember what she said about musical chairs?”
Almost simultaneously they each realized there wasn’t a chair for her. Alan looked at Jude. “Go get a chair so she won’t suspect it’s the end of épater la bourgeoisie.”
“I’m sad about this,” said Mariette, looking at Alan and then Ted. “I don’t even know what I feel right now.”
Alan put his arm around her. “Let’s not talk any more about it tonight.”
He didn’t know anything. He didn’t have the answers. He had no platform for Hap’s demise. He now had to be worried about Mariette in addition to Ted. He didn’t even have enough time to feel terrible about Frank. He found Ted’s staring at Mariette uncharacteristically brazen—or maybe just concerned. He wondered if maybe, at some point in the future, they could start worrying about each other.
But it struck him that each of them had the instinct to be here, and he had no idea why. Possibly luck, which accounts for so much.
Jude, back with the chair, had the look of someone left out of the circle. Alan had to smile at the thought that it suited him, this rare display of vulnerability.
“What’s so funny?” he asked Alan.
When Daria appeared at the threshold, Alan felt a lightness and newness to the situation, despite the fact that her eyes were smeared with mascara.
“Oh my God,” said Jude, “it’s Tammy Faye.”
Mariette looked genuinely shocked. “You got on a bus like that?”
Daria stood stolidly with her condition. “It was actually worse when I got on.”
As she walked in with her over-packed carryall, Jude cleared a path with his chair. “This is like the State Room scene in Night at the Opera.”
Ted laughed. “What, someone’s gotta leave already?”
“You know the old saying,” said Jude. “Two’s company and five’s a crowd.”
“What happened?” asked Alan.
“I found out this morning that my old boyfriend Jonathan died.”
Alan motioned for her to sit in a chair next to Mariette. “That’s terrible, Daria. We’re very sorry.”
“Was he driving drunk?” asked Mariette.
Daria dropped the bag, sat, and nodded. “Kind of, I guess. They towed his car last night when he was passed out in the back. The tow truck driver fell asleep on the Tobin Bridge, and the truck sailed across six lanes. Amazingly the driver didn’t die—he’s in critical—and he didn’t kill anyone else. But Jonathan’s car flew off the bridge.”
“He was probably out cold for it,” said Ted, opening a bottle and handing it to Daria.
Jude nodded. “St. Anheuser was watching out for him.”
“Don’t feel that bad for me,” she said. “I mean, I used to think I loved him.” She paused. “But still he was my boyfriend for eight years. So it’s sad.”
Alan looked at her with sympathy. “But you were with your friends this weekend.”
“No,” she said, looking down. “I was with my family.”
“Well that’s good then,” he said.
She shook her head. “I found out early this morning. My mother had plans to go on a harbor cruise to the Vineyard. So she and my sisters just left. Five minutes after I got the news. My stepdad had already gone to work.”
“They left you alone?” asked Mariette.
She nodded, looking at her lap. “It was a shopping trip.”
Even Alan was without a reply.
“I was going to call my friend Quentin,” she continued. “He’s like my brother. But . . . I didn’t do that. And that’s when it got worse.”
“Uh-oh,” said Ted.
She made a face and nodded. “I felt so bad I decided I wanted to see Compton. So I went to his apartment.” She paused. “Without calling.”
Jude threw his head back. “Not good!”
“I know! And I even had to take the 73 bus.”
Mariette shook her head. “Don’t tell me. A girl answers the door.”
Ted nodded. “And she’s his fiancé.”
“My God, yes!” She looked stupefied. “Why?!”
Mariette shook her head. “Why did you do that? You were asking for it.”
She nodded. “I was. I know I was.”
“Why, Daria?” asked Alan.
Her mascara-smeared eyes searched Hap’s office for an answer. “I guess I made myself do it. To get over it once and for all.” She looked at him. “Facing up to the past. Like you were doing.”
Alan seemed to bite his lip. “As long as you were prepared for it.”
“But you wore mascara!” argued Mariette.
Daria nodded. “And liner. And brow definer. I wanted to look good.”
Jude shook his head. “You can’t believe Ellen DeGeneres. She has never worn makeup with her dog on a Sunday morning.”
“I was brainwashed by all those movies,” said Daria. “I’ve been romanticizing the situation for almost two years. We’re all losers who go to romantic comedies thinking we’re just like them, the guy and the girl. It doesn’t occur to us that we’re just the also-rans who’re never gonna get into Princeton.” She looked around at them and laughed as she blew her nose. “Why am I telling you people this?”
Mariette furrowed her brow like she didn’t understand. “None of us got into Princeton.”
“Yeah,” said Ted. “Harvard was our safety school.”
Daria laughed. “There are a lot of people like me. We’re just not that fascinating to the cultural elite. And eventually the cultural elite says to us, Hey, don’t think I don’t care. I love the person you are.”
Jude shook his head. “If you had married Jonathan, he’d be dead and you’d be rich.”
“You wouldn’t even be here,” said Mariette with a rogue smile.
Somehow that thought dictated a few moments of silence.
“How did he get a name like Compton?” asked Ted. “You’re so hung up on names I’m surprised you went for that.”
“I know,” she said, nodding. “I guess it all goes with the territory. His mother’s a professor at the Div School—Isabelle Gallant—and her favorite writer is Ivy Compton Burnett. So they named their three kids all parts of that name.”
“It’s actually kind of cool,” said Mariette.
“Ivy and Burn are so accomplished. Real overachievers.”
“Why don’t you hook up with the brother?” asked Mariette. “That’ll show him.”
“I can’t do that.”
“Why not?” she continued. “He doesn’t have to be your boyfriend. Just see him enough to stick it to douche-face.”
“What does Burn do?” asked Alan.
“He’s in private equity, whatever the heck that is. He’s actually down here. Works in Jersey City.”
“Mariette’s right,” said Ted. “I think we need to initiate Operation Burn Compton.”
“Yeah,” said Jude, “but we’ll need to do it in the desert with marines.”
Alan reached over to clasp Daria’s hand. “This really wasn’t a good weekend for you. I’m sorry I pushed you into the trip.”
She shook her head. “I’m not. It was a rite of passage.” She paused. “Plus, I’m one of those people who will just keep going no matter what. I know it’s uncool to be such a regular plodder and not a drama queen, but that’s my fate.”
Alan smiled like a proud parent.
Daria gave a start. “I forgot that I have some collateral for you.” She looked at Ted as she took out her phone. She clicked to find something and handed it to him.
“Holy shit! When did you go there?”
“Yesterday. My friend took this. He’s so smart. He thinks on his feet.”
“What is it?” asked Jude.
“Did security show up?” asked Ted.
“It’s your mother?” asked Mariette.
“Lesley,” said Daria.
“Awesome!” said Ted.
“Let me see,” said Mariette.
Daria’s expression took a turn for the bleak. “Except security was my stepdad.”
Mariette handed the phone to Jude and put her arm around Daria. “God, did someone stick a Kick Me sign on you?”
Daria laughed. “I was thinking of sticking it on myself.”
When Ted’s phone rang he got up and started to leave.
“Who was that?” asked Alan.
“It’s our food,” said Ted. “It’s a tradition in Ditmas Park. Someone’s thinking of jumping out a window, you order from Sushi Yasuda.”
Daria looked around. “Who’s jumping out a window?”
Jude stole a sharp look at Mariette, suddenly pursed his lips, and looked down.
Alan smiled at Daria. “We’re still harping on the Columbia guy here.”
When Ted arrived with the white bags, Jude disappeared and returned holding up a magazine, Parenting 2.0.
“What’s the hell’s that?” asked Ted, ripping into the food.
“It’s Parents for old fucks on their second families.”
Daria squinted at the photo. “Who’s that guy with the boys?”
The showpeople gave her a Who do ya think? look. “Your father?”
“Elton Elsevier, Dad 2.0 of the Year.”
“Why him?” she asked.
He threw the magazine on Hap’s desk. “Probably because Tony Randall’s dead.”
“So those kids are your brothers?”
He nodded. “Twin keyboard prodigies at the Royal Academy of Music.”
Mariette laughed. “You mean they’re not in a lineup at juvy?”
Jude feigned offense as he grabbed a tuna roll off Ted’s lap. “I expect to see each of these lads in an Elton John biopic—as the young Captain Fantastic shining through those East End lights, muggy nights, curtains drawn in the little room downstairs.”
Alan smiled. “Hey, Jude, you’ll never let me down, will you?”
Ted looked confused. “You’d think the Dad 2.0 of the Year would actually be a Dad 3.0.”
“Good point,” said Mariette, waving the beak of her plastic chopsticks.
Jude made a grimace. “That is such bad karma pointing your chopsticks.”
She laughed as she chewed, glancing at Ted. “Really?”
“Aren’t you curious about them?” Daria asked Jude. “Don’t you want to meet them?”
“You sound like Ethylynn.”
Mariette looked at Jude. “Ethylnn was right.”
Jude lifted his eyeballs as if trying to reposition contact lenses. “I would’ve been Ethylynn’s boyfriend,” he confessed, “but she thought I look like a lemur.”
Daria’s laughing caused her to choke on her food.
“It’s true,” said Ted, nodding as he smiled. “She said, ‘Jude, you look just like a lemur.’ ”
Alan smiled and thought of a scene out of Dickens, despite the fact that he and his social media–averse Family were eating sushi in an empty office building on Seventh Avenue. Frank had put it into his head, the conceit of something larger than the incidentals of his happiness enterprise. What Alan thought of was Mr. Fezziwig from A Christmas Carol. The happy, dancing boss who just wasn’t sustainable as the industrial revolution drew nigh. Was he becoming old Fezziwig already, with the Scrooges and the Marleys poised to pounce and take over? He had once been a budding Scrooge and Marley himself, lunging after every opportunity. It made him smile all the more to think of this being his fate—the memorable but obsolescent character who has no other option but to recede into the past, recede into memory. And that, at the moment, didn’t seem such a bad place to go.