In which Daphne knows what will survive of us.
Less than a month after all five of Eugenie’s phones had been laid to rest, the war in Iraq began. This much-anticipated event was shortly followed by a declaration of victory by the offstage attackers—with old-school swagger in the new-school style, like a movie in which Denzel Washington prevents a white man with gray hair from being assassinated—and then the nation’s attention was begrudgingly turned back to the twisted language of war, wherein every new place name (Fallujah, Tikrit) immediately earned the right to be a verb. There was suitable truth and then there was Truth. No one knew when the killing would stop.
Daphne, meanwhile, found herself at Mount Auburn on a picture-perfect afternoon in June. Even when she was alone these days she wasn’t by herself. She had adopted the blind Labrador formerly known as Queequeg—eighty pounds worth, assessed by a jittery veterinary specialist at Tufts as having negligible sight in his left eye. She called him Bucky. He sang short howling tunes whenever you said his name, and he liked to lean heavily into your legs whenever you sat. Being that he was now the opposite of a seeing-eye dog, Daphne brought him places she would not have thought to bring a sighted dog. And most places were glad to accept him, even the cemetery. A guard gave Daphne an orange sticker to apply to his collar, identifying him as a Visiting Service Dog. Bucky seemed happy despite his handicap; he hadn’t been confined to a cage since the accident.
This was surely the day of days to be here, the robins posing majestically with those fabulous Edwardian bosoms—or else running chest-forward past each other without looking sideward, like young ballerinas trying to be swans. There were a lot of white butterflies suddenly; apparently someone’s God had decided to open the attic windows just this once. And claques of starlings in thick grass, like big game hunters in the bush. The lawns had certainly got on, but who’d want to mow when everything was this lush? It was the same aversion that kept a mother putting off that first trip to the barber—as if this could prevent baby from turning to boy.
Daphne had caught sight of the genial, ruddy-faced man who took inspirational photos for a Christian greeting card company. There he was scoping out an enormous Celtic cross—big-guns Celtic this one—from the overlooking hill where he’d planted his tripod. Why wouldn’t he be here on such a day? He had a business to run even if, as he’d confessed to her, the company used his images for cards announcing the immanent Rapture. The fact that this man’s peacock crosses and weeping angels were mugging for the camera in Cambridge, Massachusetts—well, no one had to know this.
All of the cemetery’s tiny working parts conspired to make it an institutional chameleon. How different it looked at different times of year, day, and minute—the trees swaying in the summer breeze opened and closed like a shutter, permitting as much blinding light as they saw fit. Every visit provided a historical take-away, or perhaps just a word association: Match the Brahmin surname with some dubious social-welfare accomplishment of the settlement-house era or before. On Pilgrim Path, for instance—Theodore Lyman 1792-1849, “Founder in this country of the first system of reform for young culprits.” Any gripes about recidivism after incarcerating a minor, blame this guy. And not far from this the tall regiment of slender white tablets known as the Billings—mother, father, and a full house of bland English monikers—as insubstantial as the ivory tops of piano keys, tilting precariously from where they’d been stuck in the dirt two hundred years ago. Did they get along that well to dwell so clannishly together for eternity? “Death is the great leveler,” Simon had once said, “when we die we become the same age.”
Daphne glanced down at the blue watch that had stopped ticking at 12:01. She and Bucky were waiting at this special bench for Elijah and Jan, the former having moved into the house of the latter. This consensual reorg was being overseen by Martha Downey and occasionally by Ingrid, even though Ingrid, at seventy-nine, was at the threshold of being overseen herself. Not long after the two funerals, the Ludenberrys consolidated resources in order to branch out. They sold the Tudor pied-à-terre for a luxury condo in Cambridgeport and studio in Manhattan, thus rendering Elijah homeless.
Jan’s house acquired some younger new blood in the form of Gwen Counts’s eleven-year-old grandson, Darien, a prodigy who needed a piano for practicing. Gwen and her aura of cleanliness had entered the house for the first time when Daphne was helping arrange things in Elijah’s new room. Jan made a fuss of pulling the tarp off the instrument, knocking over a floor lamp that hit and smashed a vase containing mummified flowers.
Gwen shook her head at the piano’s sorry condition. “It’s like my granddad’s tractor with a beech tree growing right through it.”
Jan’s white hair flared out at both sides, as if to broadcast his consternation at the decrepit state of his domain. “We’ll have to have it tuned of course.”
She nodded. “He’s the only kid anyone knows who’ll take the piano over hip-hop. Maybe he’ll be the next Ray Charles.”
Jan shot her a short-tempered look. “Is he blind?”
She made a face. “Of course he’s not blind.”
“We’ll then he can’t be the next Ray Charles. But he can be the next Fats Waller.”
“He’s not fat either.”
“The next Art Tatum then! The next Glen Gould!”
“Glen Gould,” she said, nodding. “The boy likes Glen.”
She smiled. “And now we need to get you this house painted ASAP. That gray that’s all peeling outside? Ain’t no way to run a home no matter how old you are.”
Daphne still maintained her weekly date with the men—this despite Jan’s having recently taken a fall with his new long-haired Dachshund, Tibbi. He’d been using a menacing cane that he insisted was temporary. “If you didn’t want to fall,” Elijah had asked, “why’d you buy a breed of dog known for being permanently underfoot?” They could not be stopped from being driven here, to muse on the whereabouts of their submerged phones, to tell each other and Daphne what Simon or Linus would have said to this but especially to that.
Elijah had been on the receiving end of a small flurry of media attention because a Library of America edition of his work was due to come out.
“You have to be dead for LOA,” he complained, “so they must know something I don’t.”
“You don’t have to be dead,” she told him. “You just have to be great.”
These days the jovial but secretive Elijah stood out in even starker contrast to the crotchety but transparent Jan. Despite his fraught confessions about “Pandora,” she felt she still didn’t know Elijah Tweeten all that well. That joie de vie façade of his, she had to concede, was utterly impenetrable. But even to not know him was to love him. He was shrinking more and more in the unforgiving natural light—same, alas, for Jan. She assumed it a symptom of withdrawal from the “miracle drug” that their relationship with Eugenie seems to have amounted to.
The pond-side bench on which she sat wasn’t the one Linus had specified the time she’d met him but another one, mostly in the shade, with the enigmatically simple “Remembering Ned” plate affixed. After some minutes of leaning and panting, Bucky lumbered down the small bank to place two paws firmly in the sludge. He drank slowly, lapping like the arrival of waves from a boat across the lake. He lifted his head once to listen—his hearing was becoming increasingly acute—and then continued his lapping, now with the slow scalloping rhythm of large hydraulic machinery. Finally he shook all over to fling the algae phlegm from his jowls and lumbered back to drop his haunches into Daphne’s feet. Instinct told him to listen with her to the chorus of bullfrogs. How could that be considered a cliché, she wondered, when it was in fact true about what bullfrogs did when they found themselves surrounded by more tenors than you could shake a stick at? It made her think of a Jane Kenyon poem:
From the marshy cove
the bullfrog offers thoughts
on the proper limits of ambition.
All at once she saw it amid the reeds, just a few yards away: a great blue heron standing as still as those ornamental cornstalks people used to place on their front porches at the end of October. Now it made sense why the bullfrogs were so chatty. Bucky was trying to see with his ears, but the din of frogs was hard to filter out. She waited for the bird to do something. Finally it lifted one leg and slowly put it back down into the marsh. You had to have a lot of time on your hands to get the full effect. She wondered why there were these kinds of birds anyway. She wouldn’t think nature had the patience. After a while of watching she gave up.
Luckily she’d brought a book of Chekhov stories, one of which had the most baroque Russian title you found with the playwright: “Who Is to Blame?” Who is to blame and what is to be done? Like her, the pre-1917 Russians wanted answers along with summers on the Crimea, not Bolsheviks and an eternity in Sakhalin. She wanted answers so she could account for certain criminal acts, and yet she knew that if she got answers she might have to lose the armor of anger—a very sophisticated kind of armor, allowing agility and Houdini-like escapes. She wanted to hold on to it—the outrage, the cosmic violation of fairness—exactly as it came to her.
In May she’d met the killer, the man on the motorcycle. Even after the demise of Live Every Day, Andy had remained on her case, conspiring with the minor celebrity Nick Glazer to get her to change her mind. How terribly much she’d taken Andy Pelser for granted! He and his wife were the reason she was alive. That summer night in 2001 they’d gone out to see a movie, any movie, because it was so damned hot. After Legally Blonde they looked for something to sop up more dew-point time before they had to return home. They settled on cannoli from Mike’s Pastry in the North End. Why on earth did they think to bring one to Daphne? They knew where she lived in Somerville but had never been to the house on Rose Street. It was pure coincidence that they knocked on the door that night. She’d left lights on—who was there to worry about en electric bill?—and, strangely, the front door unlocked. She was on the first floor; there were windows.
The killer’s name was Lawrence Sanford but people called him Sandy, “like the Dodger pitcher” he pointed out when it seemed there was nothing else to fill the space between them. His life, she learned from listening, amounted to one blow after another—none of them recovered from. When she reported back to Andy on the sad state of the killer’s affairs, he nodded knowingly: “Like Job.” Sandy Sanford would never make it onto a billboard paid for by Live Every Day. No, what Sandy Stanford suffered from was chronic bad luck.
One of the characters in Margie’s Frothingham is a Methodist minister who, while a young prairie-town preacher, had lost his wife and three small children to a twister that didn’t seem especially vicious or memorable to his neighbors. He’s fond of quoting Voltaire—even in his sermons—and as a very old man advises a GI whose leg has just been amputated, “The longer we dwell on our misfortunes, the greater is their power to harm us.”
That’s what Dr. Glazer liked to talk about—the will to move on, get on with it. You look for survivors before you bag the dead. If you ask people what they want to be, “over it” is what they’ll tell you. She looked down to the book opened to “Who Is to Blame?”
My uncle Pyotr Demyanich, a lean and bilious collegiate councilor who bore a close resemblance to a stale smoked catfish with a stick through it, was just about to leave for the high school where he taught Latin when he saw that the binding of his grammar book had been nibbled by mice.
She looked back up at the pond and its still-life heron. She’d never be a true-blue optimist, but she’d come to see that there were possibilities everywhere even if they weren’t meant for you. Even Larkin—that fool-averse and easily-nauseated fussy-pants—had things to say about trees, springtime, and regeneration:
Yet still the unresting castles thresh
In fullgrown thickness every May.
Last year is dead, they seem to say,
Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.
She had changed, doing things her previous self would have found reprehensible—things like bringing a dog to a cemetery and always having a phone on her person, submitting to its strutting role as overlord, consenting to be its servile, slavish, wimpled attendant. She had also begun the process of reconciliation with her mother, who seized the first opportunity to complain that she always felt “defeated” by her own family at every turn. This wasn’t new, but it had to be dealt with. Daphne visited her mother and Ford in their tony neighborhood in Westport, where they ate only vegetables and fresh fish. Ford had a white brush cut and a perpetual look of frustration—this exact expression was the only reason Kevin Costner and Nicholas Cage still made movies—as if he’d just found out about a colossal deception. He had been estranged from both of his sons, and now—because of Daphne’s overture, he said—was thinking of calling and “tearing down the wall.” He also offered to fly Daphne to and from Connecticut—anytime she wanted—on either of his two planes.
Soon enough the phone rang to remind her that she rarely answered a call. The screen revealed the caller to be “Ghostwriter”; she was sure to have a message, probably something like “I saw Winkle on TV again.”
The truth had come out about the helical relationship between Thornton Winkill, the Lexington Group, and the Garts, the ultra-conservative couple who nonetheless loved anonymously backing Broadway shows, regardless of how off-the-charts gay they were. The Garts had sent Winkill to do their bidding for Les Liz, with “Vernon St. Urgis” fronting as the financier. Winkle was paralyzed from the bullet wounds, but the tragedy only made him more lethal. Although witnesses said he saw and even seemed to recognize the assailant whom the media had come to call La grognasse Nikita, he insisted his assassination attempt was bankrolled by that master soldier of fortune George Soros. Winkle in a wheelchair had become even more aggressive—like the bad guy flushed into the sewer with radioactive waste, to emerge unstoppable by anyone outside a Marvel comic book.
Daphne was still surprised that Eugenie had chosen bullets to even the score. But then maybe her intent was not to even the score. Maybe she had bigger fish to fry. When Daphne suggested this to the ghostwriter he laughed. He said Daphne had a compulsion to ennoble people’s motives—applying philosophical and theoretical constructs to their capers when they just wanted money, power, and sex. He said the era of the Quartet would die with the Quartet, and that she ought to accept that now. She had a hard time taking advice from someone with so many secrets, however. She thought of him as not longed for this world despite the fact that he seemed so up on modern espionage and intelligence. Everything he loved—secrecy—was on the outs and all that he loathed—hero worship—was reaching new heights of fetishism. He himself had a compulsion to tote the banner for people who’d taken a dramatically wrong turn early in life—young culprits who’d served their time and now needed to get back into society—when the rest of America wanted them locked up forever. Some of his ideas for fixing the world he considered nonnegotiable—switch to a flat income tax, legalize all narcotics, take out certain Russians in Moscow, Chechnya, and the Ukraine (one of them Putin).
Elijah called them “Daphne’s gentlemen callers”—the names that showed up on the screen of the new phone she rarely answered, even though it was just her brother, her former boss, the ghostwriter, and the Welsh Pavarotti. She had sought out the latter’s advice on talking to the killer because he was a bearded nurse who wore clogs—surely a man such as that would know the right thing to do.
He liked to try out jokes on her, hoping she could help him streamline one he’d been working on for ten years. Woman on the Upper West Side—OK, so it’s his grandmother Norma who likes to see matinees with her buddies at the Lincoln Plaza, which he calls the Holocaust Six. Woman on the Upper West Side can’t accept that her husband of fifty years has died—his grandfather Maurie insisted on driving in Manhattan even if meant that no one ever saw him at dinner or the movies, weddings or funerals; getting the car onto the ramp of the parking garage took longer than the running time of Sholem Aleichem: Pull My Finger. Woman on the Upper West Side can’t accept that her husband of fifty years has died, so she continues to tell people he’s parking the car. “Norma, where’s Maurie?” “Parking the car.” Come to find out, Norma had two husbands she was married to for fifty years—one on the Upper West and one on the Upper East. It worked out so well because they were both parking the cars—and now she can’t accept that both have died. The punch line had to contain the words “alternate side parking.” He exhaled heavily after stating his case. “Any ideas how to make it all work?”
He, too, did not seem longed for this world. She presumed that both men had gravitated toward her for that reason, but she was now trying to see things differently, trying to heed the advice the Quartet had given her free of charge since day one. She loved them for that, didn’t she? There were banner advertisements for the cemetery hanging prominently on the gate in a few places on Mount Auburn Street: Beautiful, Timeless . . . and Still Available. One time, when Daphne was driving Elijah and Jan home, Jan pointed to the banner, jabbing his finger repeatedly onto the passenger window: “Just like you, Daphne!”
Death is the great leveler, yes—for the dead it’s a leveler. When we die we all become the same age—maybe even the same person. She thought of the four women dying so young. Their lives were tragic not because a famous intellectual had loved them but because their lives were short. For the living, however—we’re always moving further and further away from that moment of departure. She’d been afraid of growing so much older than he’d ever be. He would remain young and full of potential as she grew notched and gnarled by all the things she failed to accomplish, by squandering the time denied to the dead. That’s why you want to die—to prevent ordinary life from making you ordinary again, wearing down your operatic lament.
She found between the pages of the Chekhov one of the many letters she wrote to him at the end of the summer he died. She would write short letters and slip them into books, to forget and be forgotten.
I’m looking at a sky full of white noxious air (they call it humidity, but they—being They—are all suspect). No, wait—now it’s raining! Infinite gratitude for the silencing effect of this hard downpour, the beating on the hot tar roof of that parking garage. It’s a much less cruel way of suffering than listening to your music. I’m sitting on the kitchen chair you always sat on, watching a person on the upstairs porch of that brown house on Calvin Street—you know the one, attached to the squeaky clothes line (Elizabeth Bishop: dry pump, braying donkey). He’s leaning and lolling as the rain hammers on, this person, wondering what to do with his leaden captive body. Does he see me, the prisoner across the way?
Why do we return to the past again and again? Daphne had always done this by thinking about Jack Passerine—only occasionally before she met the nonbeliever, more frequently up until August 2000, and then all too often after that terrible month. All those times of remembering her uncle it never once occurred to her that he might not have been scribbling plain old nature poems into his notebook but writing love poems to her mother. Would she ever be able to see the world as it really was back then? Would she ever be able to see the woman Jack loved? The woman Jack loved now spent, by her own estimation, half of her life in the sky—with another man in the sky but still off of the earth—when he, her lover the geologist, had died in a plane crash by himself. This seemed somehow very important to the puzzle the Quartet had made of Daphne’s life. Linus Steinbrenner wrote poems in planes because he was afraid of flying—he was often in these rickety propeller planes every other day for months on end, and still they terrified him. So in the sky he wrote poems, and on land he transcribed that one poem on countless napkins the world over. It was a means of catharsis; at the very least it gave him something to sob into.
Something else—this of more recent vintage—she found tucked into the pages of the Chekhov: a Dunkin Donuts napkin on which Elijah had written lines from “An Arundel Tomb,” Larkin’s poem about the clasped-hands effigy of the paired inhabitants:
Our almost-instinct almost true:
What will survive of us is love.
Her phone rang again. With this call—from a restricted number—Bucky instinctively growled. He whined three precise notes as she stroked his head; then he stopped, went back to a leisurely pant, and leaned into her leg. This time the story was different for the servile, slavish, wimpled attendant. She happily put the phone to her ear, and was not at all surprised what the voice had to say: “The most beautiful words in the English language are summer afternoon.”
Afresh, afresh, afresh. ¶