Skip to content

Chapter 9

Mr. Hapgood,” chimed The Whiskey Priest upon secure delivery to Hap’s table. “Good morning teh yuh, sir.”

Hap stood, extending his hand. “Brother Frank, always a pleasure.”

Formalities were necessary to allay fears among the hotel staff—primarily that this indigent they’d allowed entry wasn’t going to do something unpleasant like shit his pants. The brogue worthy of a Jim Sheridan movie was something Frank thought to throw in gratis.

Hap liked to meet clients for breakfast at Gramercy Terrace because the location was desirable and the look of the place ordinary. There was also an element of nostalgia. He had stayed at the pre-Schrager Gramercy many times on last-minute business, when he couldn’t get a room anywhere else. His appreciation for the excellently pedestrian predated all things Hap.

Today’s order of business was Frank, checking in, making sure he was as right as his mortal predicament would allow. He was an old man—if not old at least older—who had been a volume alcoholic his entire adult life. It was a miracle he could walk and talk let alone unfold a napkin and curate an intriguing philosophy about the human condition.

Frank seemed amiably satisfied after conveying to the recalcitrant waiter how over-easy he wanted his three and not two eggs like on the menu. “The majority of people enjoy seeing a priest looking downtrodden,” he explained. “I look like what they’d like to see become of the lot of us Brothers of Jesus.”

Hap smiled. “Payback for being scum of the earth?”

“Funny you should mention that!” he lifted both arms as if he needed to make for himself more space. “I just enjoyed meeting a bright fellow who’s writing a biography of Cardinal Spellman. He told me that priests of Spellman’s generation understood the third Beatitude as referring to themselves: ‘Blessed are the scum, for they shall inherit the earth.’ Most of us know the cardinal as the vile man who promoted the war in Vietnam—Spelly’s War—but this fellow is focusing on Spellman’s boyfriend in the 1940s, in the chorus of One Touch of Venus, a woo-woo Broadway revue!”

Hap laughed. “You can’t make this stuff up.”

“Tell that to the cardinals in Rome.”

“How fitting that the Cardinal Spellman High in Boston is in Brockton. The whole town’s a correctional facility where the inmates have been pre-approved.”

“The sinners rack up more hits than the saints. I should feel blessed they let me go.”

“Disruption theory, Frank. It’s how we bring home the bacon.”

Frank’s attention fell on a complicated floral arrangement that included a few pussy willow branches. “Did you know that the tradition in the Russian Orthodox Church is to dispense pussy willows on Passion Sunday rather than palms?”

Hap shook his head.

Frank smiled slyly. “I’m shocked—shocked! And you a priest.”

Hap smiled as well. “Guilty on all counts.”

“Do you know what the good people of Jerusalem were celebrating when Jesus rode into their city?”

Again Hap shook his head.

Now Frank whispered. “A very good hat trick the day before. Lazarus. Suddenly they all wanted to be his friend. You really should know that one, Alan.”

Hap smiled but this time sadly in the direction of the willows. “No one wants to die, Frank.”

He understood the preoccupation. “Like our poor Ethylynn.”

“She was so good, Frank—my moral compass.”

“You miss her.”

“It’s not so much that I miss her like her family misses her. It’s the unfairness and the arbitrariness—what was stolen from her when she had earned it a hundred times over. I was supposed to have a handle on emotion.”

“You have to grieve, Alan—grieve for the injustice. It may take another year to get over it. It seems to me that you’re falling into precisely what you hate about people foolishly wanting to rid from their lives—contingency.”

“You’re probably right. But Hap was always my adrenalin. For four years I’ve been moving ahead fast—so fast it’s ridiculous. All eyes on the future.” He stopped himself. “And not my future, right? This was never about me arriving at some happy place. It’s just a . . . a concerted fuck you to the universe. Plus, I couldn’t let the kids down.”

“You can’t have a family and feel that way,” said Frank. “Unless you’re a monster.”

“I hate to break this to you, but I don’t think those three have much invested in me. Ethylynn did, however.” He paused. “She called me Dad once.”

Frank drank much of his coffee in an audible gulp, returning the jittery cup to saucer in punctuation. “Ted tells me you’ve found another young person to join the family.”

“Yeah,” Hap answered, distracted by thought. “I was lucky. Her name’s Daria Rahill. Of course they’re going to give her a hard time because she’s not Ivy. I love those kids, Frank, but they’re terrible snobs.”

“Terribly unhappy snobs.”

“You and me—let’s make a pact to disappear it, the word happy. It’s meaningless. Everyone expects it like a tax refund. Happiness—accept nothing less.

“That sounds like an ad for the Cayman Islands.”

Hap smiled. “Is that what our pitch sounds like? Travel poster? Be honest.”

“Travel poster and tax shelter.” He laughed. “No, I’ll give you credit for some higher-order thinking. I admired Mariette’s talk on how ‘the whole world is conspiring to shower you with blessings!’ That was rightly brilliant.”

“What I’ve come to conclude, Frank, is that Hap’s relationship to happiness is like pornographers’ relationship to sex.”

Frank smiled. “Money oils all parts.”

“Lately I’ve been worried about that.”

“I thought business was booming.”

“That’s the problem. This industry I’ve helped create is pushing me to grow this operation beyond the artisanal scope I can accommodate. I need a West Coast branch, brick and mortar; I need to go international. I’ve been dragging my heels on doing things in-house. I contract out probably forty to fifty jobs, from marketing to travel to follow-up surveys and analysis. At least three network shows want to sign me for regular gigs, and my agent is refusing to take no from me. The publicist wants me on the road full time. Hiring Daria was just a Band-Aid.”

“The world’s sick souls lie in waiting with credit cards in both hands.”

Hap shook his head and reached to pluck a silky bud off the branch. “Where do the sick souls turn these days anyway?”

“Some still look to God.”

Still he shook his head. “Psychoanalysis has been on the outs since I was a kid. The antidepressant wave came and went. People have been pumped with drugs for twenty years and still they’re suicidal. Self-help carries the taint of middle-age provincialism. If it has a tarot card it’s Shelly Winters holding her breath in The Poseidon Adventure.”

Frank smiled. “When I was a young man the trend against garden-variety faith was Norman Vincent Peale and the power of positive thinking.”

“Have you seen his statue on Fifth Avenue? He looks like an Amway salesman.”

Frank laughed. “Thank God the world has Hap!”

“I told you the line that made me get into this, didn’t I? Don’t overthink this. Behavior mod smacks up against behavioral econ—boom! Positive psychology perennially trending within someone’s graphic bubble.”

Frank looked troubled. “Yet all the while the distance between the superrich and merely rich and everyone else widens beyond the point of grotesque.”

At that impasse the food arrived. Soon Hap was shaking salt over a pretty omelet like he was putting out a fire. “Who’s going to save this country, Frank?”

Frank was already using his jittery hand to dunk the grain toast in yolk in a manner that would make the kitchen crew cringe. “I thought you told me that was impossible.”

“It is, but that’s all people want to talk about with the election. The only definition of America that all sides can agree on is that it’s something in need of saving.”

Frank pinched the mass of wrinkles between his eyes and squinted, as if this gesture might reset the system. “I’ve been thinking a lot lately about Greek myth,” he said, now blinking his reddened eyes. “I studied the Greek language exhaustively to translate documents of the Early Church. Never gave much thought to the stories, the details. Pagan idiosyncrasies. I was recently struck by the strangeness of the Elysian Fields of mythology being situated right next door to Hades. Right next door. That’s like the Dakota overlooking Gowanus Canal. Why not the great distance of heaven and hell we assume with Christianity? This city of course encompasses both views—worlds apart and yet shoulder to shoulder on the sidewalk. Thirty years ago you couldn’t even find the rich on the sidewalks. Now you can because of dogs. The rich won’t walk a block for a coffee but they’ll walk five for their dogs.”

Hap frowned. “Am I one of them, Frank? The heartless dog-walker without the dog?”

Frank laughed. “What has it been now, our friendship?”

“I met you five years ago.”

Frank seemed satisfied at this nice round number.

“I’d never have got this far if it wasn’t for you,” Hap went on. “You trusted me. You took what I told you and left it at that.”

“You were shrewd.”

He shook his head. “I was lucky—that’s all. Just like I was lucky with The Family. It seemed that when I started out we just found each other . . . naturally I guess you’d call it. It felt absurd going to an agency to find the kind of person we lost. And I know that Daria is not like them.” He paused and looked up at Frank. “Still, I like her in a completely different way. It seems she was meant to be ordinary and then had a Damascus moment. When you think of all the people who never get to there, who just stay on the same track and disappear into their own city limits—well, I suppose she’s lucky too.”

“That’s reassuring then,” Frank said with a smile. “A new start for Hap and this young woman.”

“Unless they eat her alive and she runs off to tell the Times we’re a bunch of fakes.”

“There has to be some common denominator among the four of them.”

He thought on this. “Maybe it’s that they’re not longed for this world. Like me. You as well for that matter.”

“Alan, you know what I always say to that.”

He nodded as he chewed. “Paul to the Romans.”

“ ‘Do not be conformed to this world, but continually be transformed by the renewing of your minds so that you may be able to determine what God’s will is—what is proper, pleasing, and perfect.’ ”

Hap didn’t look convinced. “Any Apple product is proper, pleasing, and perfect to most of the consuming world.”

“All right, my friend,” said Frank abruptly, waving his forearms as to erase the thought. “Then scotch the idea. Skip all that from the official Scriptures.”

Hap laughed. “The official Scriptures of the Summer Olympics?”

“We’ll go with the Gnostics.”

He laughed again. “Sure, go off-road.”

“Jesus says in the Gospel of Thomas, ‘If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.’ Put another way, ‘If you bring forth the genius within you, it will free you. If you do not bring forth the genius within you, it will destroy you.’ ”

“Is this on your website?”

“I imagine so. Ted is intrigued by anything Gnostic.”

Hap smiled. “Ted’s a quester. There’s hope for some of us.”

Outside on this fine spring day, Hap and Frank were in no great hurry to get away from the exclusivity of a park under lock and key.

“This time of year saddens me despite all,” Frank confessed. “The sudden splash of reckless color so short-lived. Like the red tulip beds at Columbus Circle. A sanitation worker told me that these landscaping companies, when they pull up the one color of tulip, throw the bulbs away. So that you have tulips blooming the next spring in landfills.”

Hap laughed. “Isn’t there some parable about mustard seeds?”

Frank nodded. “To explain away lives gone wrong.” He thought for a moment. “With the tulip bulbs I suppose what I suffer is the destruction of something that’s gotten over that first hurdle. Potential, as with the loss of our Ethylynn. I have no truck with theories about the need for feeding—appeasing—the gods through the sacrifice of youth and beauty for the good of the polity, what Stravinsky alludes to in Rite of Spring.”

“You’re way over my head, Frank.”

“I’m way over my head, too.”

Hap reached for is friend’s arm to make him stop in his tracks, be still. “Listen to that. They sound like car alarms, don’t they?”

Frank listened. “I’ve often thought that they made car alarms to sound like mockingbirds.”

“You think the Gramercy residents paid for the bird to sing in their locked park?”

Frank shrugged. “ ‘Listen to the Mockingbird’ was Lincoln’s favorite song. A nice uplifting tune about a bird singing over your dead lover’s grave.”

“Why is that not surprising? The man was a tragedy magnet.”

“And yet Teddy Roosevelt’s the one with an entire block on Central Park West.”

Hap smiled. “Which one is it, Frank—the visionary on happiness. Lincoln or Roosevelt?”

“Abe or Teddy?”

“Yeah. The man who suffers serial heartbreak, or the man with the big stick?”

Next chapter →

%d bloggers like this: