Gilly Caplan had some advice for the current residents of Partridge House. "Get 'em laughing," she said, looking straight at the camera with a twinkle in her eye. "Get 'em laughing, and then run like hell."
The footage was regular digital, old and glitchy. This was back in the thirties, when New York underwent a brief and abrupt shift from "nobody can make it here" to "anybody can make it here." For a hot second on the geologic timescale, housing was affordable. All the undesirables—the kooks and crazies and subway lugs, the very poor, the addicts and street performers that Mayor Gorman had tried so hard to get out of the city—came flooding back in. Of course this wouldn't do. The Establishment got it in its head to coop them up, shunt all the undesirables into special housing. Then the outcry began. Covert segregation and racial bias. Unfair stigma and mental illness. It was all very justified, Gorman was ousted, the interim mayor Jay Yates was a twenty-four-year-old upstart from the Bronx, and for a minute there, the City stayed in flux. The City stayed breathless.
Hot second on the geologic timescale.
"That's how we did it," said Gilly to the camera, flashing her teeth and snapping her fingers like an old-timey con man. "Get 'em laughing. And now, and now—" She spread her arms wide. "Apartments. You'll be out. Home- and community-based services." Sing-song, that bit, like quoting from a booklet.
She got serious then, leaning way in, eyeballs close up to the lens. "I'll be with you," she said. "Mr. Yates and Mr. Montoya, they're gonna get it moving now. That's the mayor and my friend, respectively. They've got the reins. But I'll be with you every step of the way."
Policy changes scrolled down the screen. Then Jay Yates' campaign logo, stamped in the corner like a benediction.
About the time they began ferrying undesirables into group homes, Gilly Caplan got arrested. She bit a cop. Even so she might've gotten off, by virtue of being a skinny slip of a white woman, if she hadn't been a skinny slip of a white woman with crazy eyes and wild unwashed hair. Pink corduroy overalls. Clutching a teddy bear. They tried to take the bear away and then things got ugly.
It went down on the books as an insanity defense. They wouldn't stick her in jail, took her to Partridge House instead, where she begged to have her brother Austin come and join her. Austin couldn't survive on his own, she said. Neither could she. They relied on each other. Austin knew how to make cookies! It turned out that Austin had similar mental deficits, was unfit to work. They gave him the room next to hers.
Gilly Caplan was twenty-six, she wore her hair in pigtails with giant bows, she had a seven-day pillbox bedazzled with jewels and glitter. She wasn't violent, unless provoked. She had some kind of developmental delay and some kind of mood disorder and some kind of nervous disorder.
Jonah Markgraff read about her on a Concerned Citizens Blog.
"Huh," he said, dipping his spoon thoughtfully into his Fruity Pebbles. He made a pursed-lips face at the computer. "Hey, Newman. You seen this?"
Jonah was the kind of guy who wore jeans and a crisp pressed shirt and Nerd Glasses that cost 300 dollars. He had sneakers on under the desk. He had the kind of job where you could wear sneakers to work, but also, you had to put acne cream on your face and pretend that your hair was that way by accident.
Ali Newman leaned over his shoulder. "She is crazy," said Ali with a smile.
"Apparently they're an Internet phenomenon," said Jonah. Tapping his spoon on the side of the desk.
Ali made a grotesque face and shook her head, ponytail shaking from side to side. "Nah. 'S too much work. Don't do what I think you're about to do, I see those wheels turning—"
She put one manicured hand on the back of his head and scritched. Jonah flinched, near-invisibly.
"Don't," said Ali, holding up one finger to him as she walked away.
Jonah was on the subway uptown within five minutes.
So, like, the Partridge House Players. Right?
It started with Gilly Caplan. It started when she was in the communal game room and the aide on duty was bored.
His name was José, he was a normie, but like, one of the normies that could only get this kind of job looking after drooling folks, so Gilly didn't hate him. He often slept with a baseball cap over his face and looked the other way while they did things.
"José," said Gilly, perched on a child-size chair in her overalls. "Good sir. What is up, my friend."
José cackled, the way he did after everything Gilly said. Or most things Austin said. Or . . . come to think of it . . . on balance, probably half of what anyone in Partridge House said.
"Nothing, nothing's up," he said. "Do you wanna do one of those bits you've got? I am bored as shit. 'Scuse my French, milady."
"What," said Gilly. She was rocking on her heels, now, chewing on the end of one pigtail. "What's a bit? A bit. A bit o' honey."
Laughter, again. "No, like those tangents you go on." José checked his phone, snapped his gum, clapped his hands. "You know, when you go on a monologue about, like, something crazy? Do it, man. Those are good."
Gilly thought for a second. Then she got stuck in think mode for a couple minutes with her head to the side and her eyes gone all glassy. When she snapped out of it, those eyes were unusually bright. "Okay," she said, "but I want five dollars."
José dug into his pocket. "Deal." Five dollars was like, a cup of coffee in those days. Not the fancy kind. Like deli coffee made from instant powder. It was a pittance.
"You know what I miss about old New York? The rats. You get on the subway, down there, you expect to see at least one rat. Preferably a whole clan of them rooting around in the garbage bags. They kicked them all out and I feel sad. I am heartbroken about these rats. Little oval balls of fluffy goodness. Yes, I mean that."
"I have a special connection with those foam trays that they serve food on, in the cafeteria. Those trays are my honest-to-god soulmates. Have you ever held one up to the light? Look how it sparkles. Like, oh my god, why is it sparkling. Foam should not be sparkling. Is this OK? Is it the second coming of the Foam Lord?"
"I liked Mayor Gorman, because his hair had an interesting swirl like the top of a cupcake. I mean, he locked us up, for sure. But hey. Cupcake hair. Priorities, you know. Cupcake hair. Cupcake hair."
"So I was on a date—[pause for laughter]—with this really cute guy, like you would not believe. [Pause for more laughter.] And, OK, I'm getting this feeling that he thinks there is something wrong with me." [Pointed look at the audience.] "I mean, what in the world could have tipped him off?"
She wasn't joking. Gilly Caplan didn't joke around.
Was she joking? She came out of the womb, and people laughed. Two-year-old Gilly built a tower of blocks and said it was a dinosaur fortress, and people laughed. Twenty-year-old Gilly built a tower of Legos and said it was a dinosaur fortress, and people laughed—awkwardly, the sound stifled behind their hands. Was she joking? She didn't know anymore.
"Hey," said José, to the aides who had gathered. "Hey, watch this."
Gilly sat expectantly at the table, pencil clutched in one white-knuckled hand.
"Gilly," said José, slowly and clearly, "Go home."
Gilly sprang up and went over to the corner where the microwave sat. She opened its door, click, and stuck her head into the tiny space. It was yellowed and stained with coffee and smelled stale. There were vestiges of burnt plastic.
She pulled her head out to the sound of the aides laughing uproariously. Gilly straightened up, crossed her arms. "I live in the microwave," she announced proudly.
"Yeah," said José, "yeah, that's right, you do."
Gilly showed up to breakfast next morning with her cuticles torn up, the skin on her lips a bloody mess, her eyes bloodshot and her posture skittish.
When asked where the wounds came from, she couldn't tell you. She didn't remember.
There was silence as they set up the webcam. Gilly and ten other residents, bobbing and flapping and milling around, in wheelchairs or out, crutches and canes, a regular freakshow. Gilly turned to the rest of them with hawk's eyes, fierce and focused.
"If they're going to do this to us," she said, "we might as well make them pay."
She tossed and turned that night in her bed, in her floral pajamas, as the video racked up hits. If they're going to do this to me, I might as well make them pay.
They had this joke, you see, that I lived in the microwave.
Pause for effect.
I didn't get it. If you put your head in the microwave, you die, right?
Gilly paced back and forth across the room, hands twisting, eyes frantic. Was that the joke? she asked. What was the joke?
What was the joke, she asked them, whirling and whirling with hands lodged in her frizzy hair, spin and spin and spin until she collapsed on the floor, worked into a frenzy. Rise. Smile. Bow.
The audience, by this time composed of not only aides but security and passers-by and random interlopers, laughed and laughed and laughed.
The videos went viral. Partridge House Players, starring Gilly Caplan.
Jonah Markgraff fiddled with his cufflinks in the Partridge lobby. He didn't belong here. It was eminently clear. The guard at the desk raised his eyebrows in a bored, amused fashion. Jonah shifted from foot to foot.
"Um," he said, voice cracking. "I'm here to speak to Gilly Caplan?"
The guard smirked. It was almost a laugh. Say her name and they're already laughing.
"Apartment 20B," he said, and flicked a finger toward the elevator. "Good luck."
Jonah hummed in front of the elevator, waiting for it to arrive. He squared his shoulders. He could handle this, right? He had gone to an Ivy League school, for Christ's sake. He worked for the Show. The show, like New York City was the city. If they wanted Gilly, they could easily get Gilly.
They'd have to pay her, and everything. The thought was odd to him.
The elevator dinged. Jonah Markgraff traveled up twenty flights and stood before her door. He rang the doorbell. There was no lock, but one must be polite regardless.
"Hey," said Gilly when she opened the door. There was a beat as she processed Jonah's visage. Then her hands flew to her mouth. "Oh my God, you are the show. Oh my God. You're the dude. Fuck." She covered her entire face with her hands.
Jonah bit his lip to keep from laughing at the "fuck" He got it, of course: everything this lady did was funny. Just by virtue of coming out the mouth of that crazy owlish head. That's what made it funny. She was skinny and ugly and dressed like a four-year-old.
"Yeah," said Jonah, and smiled wide. He held out a hand. "I'm Jonah Markgraff. Pleased to meet you. I'm here to negotiate a contract."
"You just want me," Gilly clarified, swinging her feet at a Very Official Table. They had brought her a juice box, which she sipped gratefully. She was forty floors up in a high-rise and executive types were seated all around her. The remains of the Village glittered and grumbled outside.
It was sunny out; the sidewalks winked. You could see the sparks of light all the way up here. Gilly swiveled her chair around and winked back. (The entire room stared at her. It was a good feeling. It meant Success. She swallowed the black bile rising in her throat.)
Ali, the skeptical one with the tight black ponytail, leaned forward to speak to her. "Excuse me? You, as opposed to who?"
"You just want me," Gilly repeated, "and not the rest of my—colleagues." [Pause for laughter at "colleagues." She knew how this worked.]
"That's right," said Jonah. He reached out and patted her shoulder; she flinched. Jonah withdrew his hand, confusion crossing his face, a passing doubt. Gilly stared at him. He stared back.
"You're gonna do great," said Jonah, and the other writers and comedians and executives nodded, their faces masks of politeness.
"When was the last time you showered?" said Jonah. He was leaning against the wall of the studio, all casual, arms crossed over his chest. He looked almost benign.
Gilly shrugged. "About a week ago. Why, is there something in my hair?"
Jonah laughed, not unkindly. "No. No—do things get stuck in there, frequently?"
"Well, you know, the usual joke about bird's nests, blah blah blah," said Gilly. They were right by the refreshments table and she fixed herself a cup of coffee. Sugar, no cream. She stirred it with the little wooden stirrer which was fucking awesome, by the way, stir rods. Stir rods. Stir rods. Magical sticks of wonder and delight.
She took a gulp and half of it spilled down her shirt. "I don't feel like performing today," she explained. "Got to save up energy for the weekend, you know."
Jonah nodded. His face was unreadable, but he wasn't laughing.
Gilly stirred the coffee nervously. The lack of a proper audience made her nervous. "I mean," she said, "if this job is real, you know."
Jonah fiddled with the rings on his left hand. "Oh, it's real," he said. "It's real."
"Good." Gilly's hands twitched and she set down the coffee. "Do you have, like, doughnuts around here? Because I could really use a doughnut."
That was funny, too, but Jonah didn't laugh.
My dearest Austin,
Here's the deal, bruh. I am serving out my time among the normies. You may ask yourself: What has gotten into our Gilly, that she takes this job? How can she stand it—to be paraded out on a stage like a circus curiosity? (And no less, before an audience that does not realize it mocks her thus.) Well, I will answer you simply, and in one word: Money. Money, and fame, and a name for herself such that she may eventually rendezvous with the Mayor. And speak to him about our place in the Houses. I hope that in time we may cast off the shackles of the Partridge House and its twins, for good.
It is all right here. They have set me up in an apartment. Much of pink decor. I love it. Grand princess bed. There are coworkers named, variously, Jonah and Ali and Avery. Jonah is taken an interest in whether I do things such as eat my breakfast. He has thus far comported himself appropriately.
The hours are late, the nights are long. I am bringing down the house.
Benediction to José and Lulu and all the rest.
Give my regards to Broadway / Remember me to Herald Square,
P.S. Jonah is nice, but not that nice. Ali holds herself aloof but is kind in rare moments. Retain your suspicions. Carry yourself with caution. Do not yield to their questions and simpering eyes.
P.P.S. I am transferring Mad Funds to your account. Use wisely.
She began to get accustomed to all the little details. The tiny microphone clipped to her collar. The plastic tubs of cream cheese on the refreshments table. Ali's whip-tight ponytail and steady brown-eyed gaze; the crinkle in Jonah's forehead, his shambling walk.
They would knock on her door, every morning at eight, and turn on the TV. Ali would sling her up in a fireman's carry, swinging her back and forth till she woke. Then she'd help pick out Gilly's clothes, while Jonah would toast a bagel. When she was fully awake and snapping at them they'd leave her alone. Additional instructions for getting ready were plastered on the walls. Gilly would drink two cups of coffee in quick succession, sitting cross-legged before the TV on the plush carpeted floor. She wore bunny slippers. Ali and Jonah were affable, quiet, willing. She owed them for this.
Daily she would curl herself up into strange shapes on the floor of the writers' room. Contortionist moves. She missed the drab gray walls of Partridge House. She had to keep going, keep going, keep going.
I can't take off my hat; it protects me from outside influence.
These slippers are the only thing tying me to the ground.
Forgive me, I was just considering how I'd throw myself out that window.
"It's okay," Jonah would say, holding a hand up to the nervous uncertain laughter. "It's a bit. It's okay, it's a bit."
"I asked them," said Gilly, in rehearsal one night. Pause; drag off a fake cigarette. "I asked them, you know, do you think I maybe have repressed memories. Of child abuse, or something. Do you think I got this way for a reason? Do you think there's a reason I'm so scared, and alone, and afraid."
She leaned forward, cracking a smile. "I said this to my jailers. I looked at the people who every day treated me like a disobedient child, and I said, do you think I've been abused? It was funny." Grin widens; pointed stare at the camera. "Everything is funny, when you've got stuff like that in your repertoire."
Softer, an echo: "Everything." She stubbed out the mimed cigarette on the table.
Jonah signaled to the cameraman. "Cut," he said quietly. "We're not using that."
Jay Yates' office was cool with air conditioning. Plaques and framed diplomas on the walls. His fingers were long and elegant, his suit was pressed, he had a quiet thoughtful face and one unexpected earring.
"You're quite famous," he said to Gilly.
Gilly fiddled with the strap of her corduroy overalls. The receptionist had poured her a cup of complementary coffee. They had those little creamers, different flavors in the plastic cells, and Gilly had peeled the lids off two vanilla ones and dumped them in. Stir rods. Stir rods.
The coffee swirled and took on a melty caramel color.
"I guess," said Gilly, after a silence had passed.
Jay Yates was one year younger than her, and black, and sane. He could tailor his diction to a given situation. Gilly wasn't sure what he would understand, and what he wouldn't. The only good meeting is no meeting, Jonah had told her, before ushering her onto the train with a hand on her back.
"I need your help," said Gilly. "Can you do something. About the Partridge House and my friends and my, my," hands clenched in the air, "type of people. I'm very stupid and I need your help."
The mayor gazed at her evenly.
"All I can do is make them laugh," she said, her voice broken.
Hands whirling in the air—would it turn into a bit? Would she stop talking, ever? Gilly didn't know. "Have I served my time in hell? Have I served in hell, have I—have I done my bit? Have I done my part?"
When she had calmed down a little, Jay Yates responded. "I'm going to need you to elaborate," he said. He was looking at her with a strange unreadable expression. She had no prior knowledge of that mode of face. It was weird. It was nice? Gilly sipped her coffee, bought time.
But the mayor was moving. He was getting a slip of paper from a box, scribbling something on it. He slid it across the table to her, over the polished wood. The table was so smooth. Gilly laid her cheek on it for a second.
"That's the name and phone number of Asher Montoya," said Jay Yates. "He's a man who might be able to help. He's the head of a nascent disability rights coalition in the city, he's an ex-resident of Colfax House, you should call him up."
Gilly stared at the paper, confused. "How come I don't know him?"
Jay Yates shrugged. "I dunno, man. I'm not familiar with how things work in there."
"I'm a ghost," said Gilly. She waved the paper in front of her face. There was a proper translation for that sentence but she couldn't hack it. "I need, I need—I can't do phones. I need his email."
"Ah," said Jay Yates. "Right." He modified the paper accordingly.
"Thankyou," said Gilly, and the words spilled out of her mouth too quick like fish. "Thankyousir. I'll see about him. Catch my show on the weekend sir thank you."
Jay Yates rubbed his fingers over the ridges on his tie. "I, um," he said, and cleared his throat. "I don't watch that show. I found it abhorrent, the few times I tried, actually."
"Abhorrent," said Gilly. She cackled. She tossed the empty coffee cup and it fell into the trash, perfect aim. Abhorrent abhorrent. "That's pretty much same, I guess," she said. "I mean. That's pretty much right. I'll serve in hell, I thought, and see how it goes. Don't you know everyone wants to laugh."
She turned to go. The paper was crumpled tight in her fist.
"You're not a very funny woman," said Jay Yates. His voice was strained, like he'd shoved the words out of his mouth against better judgment.
Gilly pulled her sleeve over her hand and turned the doorknob. "I know," she said to the outside, to the golden mayoral hall. There were marbles in her throat. At least it felt that way.
Godspeed, said Jay Yates—but he didn't say it, but she heard it, echoing off the tiles. Godspeed said the City, the humidity and fog creeping in through the windows. The City exhaled.
You're not a very funny woman, said her shoes as they clacked through the mayoral halls. Gilly wore nice pumps with bows on. It made you sound very official, clackety-clack on the hard floors.
I'm not a very funny woman, she said to herself as she opened her own front door. I'm not a very funny woman—as she took off her coat. When Jonah and Ali showed up the next morning, she locked the door until they screamed themselves hoarse and then left, defeated.
She took out her scratched-up phone in bed, still in her nightgown, hair frizzed out like rabbit ears, and typed.
Dear Sir. Mr Asher Montoya.
I don't know if you have seen my broadcasts, but I am not a very funny woman.
I would like for that to be a widely known fact.