Daisy Kaufman arrived early for her job interview. She was buzzed into the building and took an ancient elevator to the fifth floor. The hallway pervaded an odor of moldy cabbage as if ghosts of all the tenants who’d ever lived there were still cooking.
An old woman stood by the open door of an apartment. She had shoulder-length white hair, blue eyes, and wore startling red lipstick. “Are you Daisy?” she asked.
“I’m Joan Leland,” she took Daisy’s arm as if planning to waltz with her and pulled her inside. A black French bulldog stood with his paws on Daisy’s leg, begging for attention.
Mrs. Leland led her through the cluttered living room into a rose-colored kitchen. The whole place was saturated with air freshener as if that would substitute for cleanliness.
“Would you like coffee or tea, Daisy?” Mrs. Leland asked, sitting down at the table. She wore a white terrycloth bathrobe over her nightgown though it was two in the afternoon.
“Nothing, thank you.”
Mrs. Leland wiped some crumbs off the stained, embroidered tablecloth, then demurely cupped her chin in her hand, resting her elbow on the table.
“Daisy’s a lovely name. Unusual in this day and age,” Mrs. Leland said.
“It’s after a character in a book.”
“Daisy Buchanan or Daisy Miller?” she asked.
“One of them,” Daisy said. She wasn’t a reader though her mother was.
“I once met a girl named after a package of donuts,” Mrs. Leland mused. “A brand called Virginia Lee. At least, you weren’t named for that.”
Daisy wasn’t sure whether Mrs. Leland meant to be funny, but chose not to laugh.
“What do you think of Theo?” Mrs. Leland looked down at the dog who was slyly smiling.
“He’s adorable. I love animals.”
“Unfortunately, I can’t walk him anymore,” she picked him and put him on her lap. “I suffer from fibroids.”
“I’m sorry,” Daisy said.
“Nothing serious. More a pain in the ass. Or the womb,” she laughed weakly. “I’m on pain medication that’s left me barely functional. Please forgive my dishabille.”
“Aside from taking care of Theo, you’d also be expected to run errands and do some light housework.”
“Certainly,” Daisy said. The place was a wreck. The garish assortment of ornate furniture, mirrors and lamps teetered into looking like a low end antique shop, and despite the air freshener, something smelled foul. Maybe Theo had pooped in there.
“I have a good feeling about this,” Mrs. Leland said. “I’ll show you your room.”
The apartment was spacious with three bedrooms and a bath. Daisy’s quarters were at the end of the hall. A small, untouched guest room with yellow walls, a large chest of drawers and a window.
“It’s perfect,” Daisy said.
“I want to introduce you to my son,” Mrs. Leland lowered her voice. “His name’s Aidan.”
His bedroom was right off the parlor and Mrs. Leland carefully knocked on the door.
“Aidan? The dog sitter’s here. I’d like you to meet her.” She turned to Daisy and whispered. “He’s very busy. He never leaves his room. He’s an architect. Self-employed.”
A man of about forty opened the door, looking harassed as if they’d disturbed him. He was thin, moderately tall with blue eyes and his mother’s pallor. He was neatly dressed with a scarf wound around his neck like an ascot. He reeked of nicotine to the extent of smelling like tanned leather. He stood blocking the door to his room as if he didn’t want them to look inside.
“Aidan, this is Daisy.”
He bowed from the waist and kissed her hand. No man she’d ever met had done that before, but for him, the gesture seemed perfectly normal.
“Charmed,” he said.
“Isn’t she pretty?” Mrs. Leland asked.
“Beardsley’s Salome,” he pronounced.
Daisy didn’t know who or what he was referring to. He excused himself and Mrs. Leland told Daisy the job was hers if she wanted it.
“You’ll have free room and board and I’ll pay you a hundred dollars a week,” Mrs. Leland said.
Daisy nodded. In her situation, it seemed reasonable. She’d graduated from Rutgers a year ago and lived at home, unable to find work. Her parents had been patient at first, but could no longer hide their frustration.
“We’re waiting for your life to begin!” her mother had plaintively yelled at her the night, before.
Daisy hadn’t told them about this interview. Her plan now was to go home, pack her things and announce she was leaving. When they begged to know what she was up to, she couldn’t wait to tell them, “My life has begun” then walk out the door and catch the bus.
Mrs. Leland seemed thrilled with Daisy’s efforts. The living room still edged toward hoarderdom, but at least, it was clean. She walked the dog, did the laundry, sanitized the bathroom and on occasion, even cooked.
“You’ve brought such cohesion here,” Mrs. Leland marveled.
Aidan never left his room and even took his meals, there. Sometimes, he played the cello. For the most part, Mrs. Leland also stayed in her room, lying in bed and watching television. Both of them spent their days high on pot and alcohol. Aidan might have gone to school to be an architect, but Daisy doubted he was ‘self-employed’.
One of the regular errands Daisy ran involved buying marijuana from a connection he’d met online. The dealer was a pleasant, clean-cut Iraq war veteran who’d lost a leg. They did business in the fenced-off dog run in Washington Square Park where Daisy brought Theo.
She also made friends with a pretty redhead who came to the Park every day. Her name was Jessica and she worked as a nanny for a family who owned a nearby townhouse though she didn’t live with them.
“Are you kidding? I’d kill myself,” she said when Daisy asked her.
Jessica shared a two-bedroom apartment on West 13th with what sounded like twenty other roommates.
“I don’t know how many people are there and just when you get to know someone they leave.”
“Rent must be low,” Daisy said.
“Are you kidding? Even with all those people, it’s a frigging fortune. It’s still worth it to live in the Village, though. I’m never bored. I have a good time wherever I go,” she spoke as if that were a talent.
Jessica worked for a blended family which she described as six demonic children who cursed at their parents and even hit the mother. Besides her, they had a live-in nanny.
Jessica was in charge of the youngest, a six-month old colicky boy named Damien, of all things. She also walked their haggard-looking shih tzu who she regularly saved from being tortured by the kids. The whole brood sounded like a berserk cult, but Daisy also spoke of the Lelands as if they were monsters.
“They live like vampires,” she told Jessica. “They never go outside. I’ve never seen him leave his room.”
The girls couldn’t help resenting employers who exposed them that closely to their inept lives and creepy habits. After all, they weren’t robots. At times, Daisy felt assaulted.
Daisy usually brought Aidan his dinner, then collected the dishes outside his door. On one particular evening, she was surprised when he asked if she’d like to come inside to visit.
“Sure,” she told him and picked up Theo. The dog was fervently devoted to her. He even slept in her bed.
“Not him,” Aidan glared at the dog, his blue eyes steamy with hate.
She’d hadn’t realized until now how much the dog disgusted him.
“OK,” she shrugged and put Theo on the floor.
His room was larger and neater than she expected, dominated by a complex computer system, and built-in book shelves. Beethoven’s ‘Pastoral’ was booming out of the DVR. Above his desk was a framed degree from Princeton and in a corner was his cello.
The walls were painted a shimmering black and one of them was covered with a huge portrait. The subject was a dark-haired young woman in a long, black dress holding a book in one hand, lying on a green damask couch. She didn’t look comfortable. She looked as if she’d been overpowered and forced into a supine position. Her face was more anxious than pensive.
“Who does she remind you of?” he asked. He lit a joint, inhaled and passed it to her.
Daisy puffed, passed it back, then sat down on the corner of his bed. “Salma Hayek?”
“Actually, she reminds me of you.”
Daisy didn’t see it at all. He was trying to make it seem as if fate had brought her, there. Everyone looked for messages. Even someone in solitary confinement could read a moth flying into his cell as some sort of sign; especially someone in solitary confinement.
“Do you ever go outside?” she felt emboldened to ask him.
“Why? Am I missing something?”
“The weather’s been beautiful.”
“From what I recall at this time of year, the streets reek of stale meat and dog shit. The stale meat I suppose is either from restaurants or the remains of homeless people who froze to death during the winter.”
She couldn’t dispute that. It was pretty rank out there, but he wasn’t a rose garden, himself. Nicotine poured out of his skin as if he’d marinated in it.
“It’s not just New York. The world has grown insufferably coarse,” he said. “It got to the point where I decided not to go out, anymore. If it wasn’t something I saw, it was something I heard or some cretin to deal with. I suppose one’s defenses get weaker with age. I can’t filter these things out, now.”
“Sort of like auto-immune disorder?”
“If there’s no reason to expose yourself to a cesspool, why bother?”
He was either pathologically sensitive or a delusional snob.
“Your mother said she was a ballerina with the New York City ballet,” Daisy changed the subject. There were countless pictures of Mrs. Leland en pointe in the living room and even a bronzed bust of her head.
“Yes, she was quite exquisite. Of course, she’s in ruins, now,” he said disdainfully. “It was the company’s golden age. Suzanne Farrell, Allegra Kent. She knew them all.”
“It’s too bad she’s in so much pain with those fibroids.”
“She was always in pain of one kind or another,” he smirked, “It’s what she was designed for. I suppose I see things in those terms. Being an architect.”
“What would you say I was designed for?”
“You were designed to be given things,” he smiled broadly and sat next to her on the bed.
“What do you mean?”
“You’re a very passive girl, Daisy,” he told her. “Also young and soft and pretty. You were designed to be admired.”
He kissed her collarbone. It was a deft, graceful move and she was surprised. Clearly, he’d had experience with women.
“I’m sorry. You’re just so beautiful,” he whispered.
Probably, in his isolation, most young women would be gorgeous to him. She let him embrace her, lying prone like the girl in the picture. However, when he put his hand inside her panties and cupped it over her crotch, she pushed him away and sat up.
“I’m sorry,” he flushed. “Forgive me.”
“I’m not on birth control. And I’m getting over a very bad break-up,” she lied. Her last steady boyfriend had been two years ago in college, but she’d been the one who walked out.
“Yes, I thought so. I could read it from your posture. You’re very self-protective.”
He was hardly one to talk.
After the incident in Aidan’s room, Daisy made a studied attempt to avoid him which wasn’t difficult since he rarely showed himself. She couldn’t believe she’d let him touch her with those clammy fingers that smelled like brine.
Mrs. Leland was getting sicker from her fibroids. She intimated to Daisy that they were growing. She never left her room, anymore and she’d stopped eating. Daisy suggested calling a doctor, but Mrs. Leland forbade it. One morning when Daisy knocked there was no answer. She went in and found her unconscious.
She went to Aidan’s room and pounded on his door. “Your mother might be in a coma,” she told him when he finally opened.
“And what am I supposed to do about that?” he asked without batting an eyelash, but she could tell he was panicked.
“I’m going to call an ambulance.”
“Don’t you dare,” he hissed.
“Do you want her to die there?” she asked, realizing that might be exactly what he wanted.
“You’ll have to deal with this,” he was visibly flustered, but kept a superior tone. “I’m no good at these things.”
He shut himself in his room and Daisy called 911 and the paramedics arrived twenty minutes later. When they put Mrs. Leland on the stretcher, Daisy was shocked at how bloated she was. She hadn’t seen the woman out of bed in a while and she appeared pregnant except her stomach was jelly-like and even seemed to float under her nightgown.
She was brought to St. Vincent’s Hospital two blocks away. Daisy sat in the waiting room until a young Hispanic resident came to speak to her a couple of hours later.
“Are you the young lady who was with Mrs. Leland?” he asked.
“Are you her grand-daughter?”
“No, I work for her.”
“Is any member of her family here?”
“She has a son, but he never leaves the apartment.”
“Mrs. Leland died a little while ago.”
“What?” Although the woman was obviously very ill, this seemed acutely sudden. Daisy didn’t think fibroids were fatal. Her mother had them. “I didn’t know fibroids could kill somebody.” She wondered if Aidan had poisoned her.
“She didn’t have fibroids,” the resident said. “She had uterine cancer. She was in the last stages.”
“Oh my God!” Daisy was stunned and even angry as if she’d been hired under false pretenses.
“You said she has a son.”
“He doesn’t leave the apartment.”
“You’d better tell him that his mother died. I don’t want to seem callous, but we’d like to know what to do with her.”
Daisy called Aidan on her cell phone and told him what happened.
“Oh my,” he said uncertainly, but didn’t seem especially shocked.
“The hospital wants to know what arrangements should be made,” Daisy didn’t know how else to put it.
“There are no arrangements. She wanted to leave her body to science.” He hung up and let Daisy deal with this unpleasantness, too. She felt hot with exasperation.
“He said she wanted to leave her body to science,” Daisy told the resident.
“Fine. The medical school can always use cadavers.”
When Daisy got back to the apartment, Aidan was sitting at the kitchen table, smoking a cigarette and drinking scotch. He looked refreshed as if he’d just finished an intense exam and was confident he’d passed.
“Did you know your mother had cancer?” Daisy asked him.
“Is that what it was?”
“The last stages of cancer,” Daisy said accusingly as if he and his mother had both colluded to hide it from her.
“My mother’s health has always been frail, but she had no faith in doctors. She always self-diagnosed depending on the symptoms. I guess, this time she was wrong.” He seemed quite at peace. “You know you don’t have to leave, Daisy. I don’t want you to. Anyway, where would you go?”
She felt deflated, thinking about it. Going home would be a total defeat.
“You’re so fragile,” her quiet distress pleased him. “Moony.”
“What does ‘moony’ mean?” she asked. He made it sound like ‘dumb’.
“Not quite of this world,” he grinned. “I couldn’t imagine the kind of applicant who’d respond to a job for a dog sitter. Is that what you tell people you do when they ask you?”
Who was he to mock her? If she hadn’t been there, he would have let the old lady’s corpse rot in bed until neighbors complained of the stench.
“Where’s Theo?” she noticed the dog wasn’t around.
“I put him in your room. That’s one thing we have to discuss,” he said. “I want him out of here. First thing, tomorrow. You can bring him to a shelter or leave him in the park.”
She was shocked by his meanness. “I was hired to take care of him.”
“Your duties have changed. From now on, you’ll be my personal assistant. I’ll even give you a raise,” he was openly leering as if empowered by his mother’s death. “My mother may or may not have told you, but we’re in the social register.”
She didn’t know what that meant.
“She was a Laurence, from one of New York’s oldest families. She grew up on Sutton Place and had a summer home in Montauk. That cupboard over there was designed by Edward Barnsley,” he pointed to a walnut cabinet in the corner, “and the chest of drawers in your room is Chippendale. My cello is a Stradivarius and the paintings in the living room are all originals. The one over the fireplace -“
“I’m tired,” Daisy interrupted, unimpressed. His litany made him sound like a deranged curator on Antiques Roadshow. “I have to go to bed.”
“Yes, you must be exhausted. Get some sleep. First thing tomorrow, you’ll remove that animal. I should have known my mother had taken leave of her senses when she bought him. If one must have a dog, then it should be a mastiff or greyhound. Not an ugly, stunted dwarf.”
Daisy went to her room and found Theo trembling in the corner. She picked him up and cradled him. She couldn’t stay there without Theo. If he hadn’t been there, it would have been unbearable, like living in a rancid museum. He even got her out during the day.
The next morning she fed him, then walked over to Washington Square Park. Jessica was already at the dog run with Damien and the Shih-Tzu.
“You look like hell,” Jessica said bluntly. “Are you all right?”
Daisy told her everything, about how Mrs. Leland had died and how Aidan had ordered her to get rid of Theo as if he were a piece of furniture he hated.
“I’ll tell you what I think,” Jessica said. “She never hired you to walk the dog. She hired you for her son. Kind of a perverted version of ‘Beauty and the Beast’ as if ‘Beauty and the Beast’ wasn’t perverted enough.”
Jessica’s theory made perfect sense. Theo had only been a ploy to get her into that crypt and once there, they had her cleaning the house, running errands, and even doing hospice care. It was certainly conceivable that prostitution was on the agenda.
These were people who couldn’t cope with life and hired strangers to do it for them. You were meant to be the shock absorber for every trauma they encountered. No wonder she couldn’t help despising them.
“There’s no way I’m staying there,” Daisy said. She felt lucky to have escaped, intact. “I’ll move out even if it means going home. I’ll bring Theo with me.”
“You don’t have to leave,” Jessica told her. “You can stay at my place. We’re always looking for new roommates. People move in and out of there like it’s a goddamn hotel.”
“Are you serious?” Daisy asked.
“Absolutely. You don’t have to go back there ever again. You can move in with us right now, after we leave the park.”
“All my clothes are there,” Daisy said.
“Do you want them? You can borrow some of mine or buy new ones.”
Daisy couldn’t bear the thought of going back there and now, there was no reason to. He wouldn’t come looking for her. He never left the apartment.
Two years later, Daisy was living in Reykjavik with her Icelandic boyfriend, Baldur and Theo was staying with her parents. After moving in with Jessica, she’d gotten a job as a waitress at a sandwich shop on 6th Avenue. Baldur, a graduate student at NYU, had been a regular customer and that was how they met.
Daisy had initially loved Reykjavik. It was funky and cosmopolitan like Greenwich Village, though a lot more pristine and contained. They’d arrived in August and the weather was lovely, but she was unprepared for the morbid winter. The unyielding frigid dusk made the city as desolate as purgatory.
She had a boring job in a bookstore at Kringlan shopping mall and was homesick for New York. Her parents badly wanted her to return to the States and said they’d help pay for graduate school. Things were diminishing on a daily basis with Baldur and Daisy clearly had decisions to make.
One day, she was getting her hair cut at Engill har, a beauty salon. While waiting, she leafed through a copy of a British tabloid, The Daily Mail and was surprised to see a picture of Mrs. Leland and Aidan. It had been taken years before, when Mrs. Leland was still blonde and Aidan was in his twenties.
The headline of the story read: Trust-fund Hermit Jumps to Death. Daisy was startled at first, then coldly thought, “So he finally went outside.”
While the stylist cut her hair, Daisy sat in the chair and read the story. Apparently, all he’d told her was true. The household effects found in the “malodorous apartment” were estimated at a few million dollars. She almost regretted not having swiped some of the old lady’s jewelry as a memento.
“What are you reading?” the stylist asked Daisy in English.
“I knew this man. I rescued my dog from him,” Daisy said and never mentioned him or his mother, again.