In which Daphne takes the wheel.
After that Monday at the Ludenberrys’, Daphne’s voices collapsed to a one-woman show running everywhere and anywhere people were talking on the phone—male and female, old and young, any race and ethnicity—and not just passersby on the street but the few people in her office on the phone to their spouses, talking about what to have for dinner and who would pick up the dry cleaning. Even Andy Pelser succumbed. He remained Andy while conversing in person, but the minute he spoke into a phone, she prevailed.
Before that Monday at the Ludenberrys’, Daphne believed that if this thing became too much of a head-trip she could quit the group and these coincidences would stop. But now she wasn’t sure whether severing diplomatic relations with Das Blaue-Fischreiher-Quartett would snuff this voice. The only way to turn it off was to avoid contact with people on phones, and this meant being in her apartment or in her car—that is, being alone.
“I don’t want to see you alone,” her brother was always saying. “I want to see you happy.”
Usually she’d point out that the two states were not synonymous. “My separateness is a continuum. I’m either a happy solitary person or a sad solitary person.”
“You weren’t always separate. I remember how you cried when we’d put you on the plane back to Mom. Dad called you the koala because you wouldn’t let go of me. You can’t tell me you’re happy being alone.”
She wasn’t happy being anything, and lately all of her dreams were about loss. She dreamt, for instance, that she was drinking tea from Staffordshire china, a delicate cup festooned with red dragons. She did not in her dream lift the dragon cup high, like the vessel in a religious offering, to read the name of the maker, but somehow her dream-self knew that Staffordshire was the china she held in her hand when, suddenly, she realized her teeth were made of ice, and the hot liquid was melting them away.
She supposed she could call the doctor in Newton to ask for help. But the help she’d received two years ago came not from him but her own devices—two nickels on the gravestone. That’s what got her out of bed in the morning on time for work; that’s what got the comb through her hair and the coffee in her thermos—this ritual that was hers and no one else’s. Dr. Glazer might say, as he did then, “But you haven’t repaired your life, have you? Look at how your connections have withered. You have to fix that, Daphne. Staying alive is not enough. People much worse off than you are moving on, finding other people and building new lives.”
Conversely, she could call Mistress Eugenie and cry uncle: “OK, you win. I’ll give you the money, whatever it is you want. Just make your curse go away.” The only people she’d informed about her association with Quartet were Paul and Andy, and neither knew about Eugenie, so there was no one but the Quartet to talk to about the woman’s powers.
She pictured these powers like a vast and barely visible spider web cast out in elegant arcs to create a dome around her life at the center. This spider-web image summoned yet another image—Bucky Fuller’s concept of tensional integrity in the geodesic dome, as explained by her Uncle Jack: “In tensegrity structures, all the compression elements become islanded entities, not touching one another yet contributing to the overall shape. Tension wires, which tend toward increasing invisibility with slenderness, run between the compression elements, playing the role of implosive gravitational force.” It seemed to Daphne that these random speakers—the islanded entities—did not physically touch each other or her but nonetheless contributed to the overall shape of her mania. Contributed quite well, they did. And the voice—ah, the voice! This was the series of slender tension wires running between the islanded entities, gracefully and cunningly defying that most fundamental law of nature.
Because of the one-woman show, Daphne chose to drive to the Monday meeting at Jan’s house—drive what would have been a ten-minute walk. This was the first time she arrived late, let in by a plump woman who quickly disappeared. The men’s convivial voices in the adjoining room were enhanced by the aroma of Maxwell House coffee.
“Nothing is more threatening to a culture than the misunderstanding of evil,” Jan was saying in the room to which Daphne had gravitated from the center hall. “Evil must be recognized and contained, but it can never be resolved.”
Linus interrupted him on seeing Daphne: “You’ve missed nothing, my dear.”
“Evil is not nothing!” Jan shouted.
“Don’t tell us you were intentionally loitering,” said Simon.
“I’d never do that,” she said. “I had to drive today and couldn’t find a place to park.”
“Why doesn’t anyone actually park a car in Harvard yard?” Elijah mused.
“A Cadillac would never be accepted into the Ivy League,” she told him.
“Why, a Cadillac is a luxury automobile!” cried Jan.
She shook her head. “There’s a guy from Winter Hill who has the exact same make and model as mine. Same white body, same navy canvas roof, same outré gold accents. I met him at the Lechmere Carwash, and he marveled at how he bought his with 90,000 miles on it and had put on another 35,000, and I had the very same car with only 45,000 miles. He asked if I wanted to trade. He asked if I was selling. ‘Can’t give ya more than a grand, but it’d be cash.’ I saw him a second time at the carwash a year later. ‘Miss me? I just got out of jail. Rhode Island, so it don’t count.’ ”
Jan stared at her as if contemplating consternation but thinking the better of it. He instead went back to the evil: “Augustine said, ‘Never fight evil as if it were something that arose totally outside yourself.’ ”
“I’d rather not talk about evil just now,” Simon declared brusquely, shooing away the topic with his hand, “considering that I most unwisely forewent my Maypo with bran flakes this morning.”
“I’m afraid the question of evil won’t go away,” said Linus with a sigh. “That’s all the papers throw at you every morning, the bogeyman of the ‘axis of evil.’ ”
Simon again scoffed. “My brother the small-town publisher would take his pencil to the weather forecast on front-page proofs—‘partly cloudy’ would become ‘partly sunny.’ ”
“Newspaper publishers still play God with the news,” said Elijah. “If only they’d stick to the weather and not be altering the reality of who’s buying and selling plutonium.”
“I may finally be finished with the Times,” said Linus. “Last week I read an article about the merits of duct tape as a defense against chemical weapon attacks. It was those buffoons writing again, Chang and Miller, in their campaign to hype the threat from Iraq.”
Jan looked like a cat ready to pounce. “All the major papers are being lap dogs to the Bush brigade! None is exempt from culpability!”
“All the times I’ve had it with the papers!” cried Simon. “I remember one morning a half dozen years ago—remember it crystal clear—picking up the Post to a prominent article about the scintillating factotum that Staphylococcus was writing 2,000 words a day toward a book about Clinton!”
“You mean George Stephanopoulos?” asked Daphne.
“I know what I mean!” he yelled. “With all the problems in the world, that that should be paraded as ‘news’ for a man like me—he writes 2,000 bloody words a day!”
The men were agitated, but at least they’d gone quiet for the moment. Daphne the mediator decided to weigh in: “I just read that Nabokov wrote ‘as if in a fever.’ ”
“At least he was Nabokov,” said Elijah, “and thus earned the right to be a dervish with prose. When did journalists begin believing that how they themselves got the news was equally or more important than the news itself?”
“They are so fearful of being ‘politicized’-left,” complained Linus. “Not politicized-right, mind you. But anything to the left is perceived as weak. So in lieu of broaching the truth, they must resort to writing about themselves.”
“But why?” asked Daphne. “Why do the media live in fear of reporting that America should not live in fear?”
Linus’s face brightened. “The Democrats have failed to define what a liberal foreign policy is. We need to resurrect the Wilsonian ideal of collective security in the face of this balance-of-powers hegemony that Bush and Company has forced down our throats.”
“I told you never to hold up Wilson as any kind of model!” exclaimed Simon. “The man showed Birth of a Nation at the White House. He had no moral center.”
Linus shook his head. “Truman then? Truman did not want an escalation of the balance of powers. He carried around in his pocket Tennyson’s poem ‘Locksley Hall,’ with the familiar lines ‘the Parliament of man, the Federation of the world.’ ”
Jan let out a harrumph. “Except it’s the Parliament of one halfwit and a Coalition of his cronies!”
“I have faith that collective security will win out,” said Linus. “In some sense this quagmire reminds me of Morgenthau’s spiteful plan to reduce Germany to a potato field. He, too, had his adherents, but we worked on Henry’s boys. Reason and fairness won out.”
“I hate to interrupt,” declared the plump woman who’d let Daphne in. She held a cordless phone in one hand and with the other covered the mouthpiece, so that she appeared to be praying.
“Saved by the Martha Downey!” chimed Elijah.
“But it’s your lady friend, Dr. Kindermans,” the woman continued, handing Jan the phone. The brethren anxiously eyeballed one another as Jan began the valiant assault of getting out of his chair. The plump woman had an ordinary middle-age build and a rosy complexion, but her dress and manner were of the BBC-import mode—a certain style of hair in a certain dye lot that made it difficult to date the look to the early, mid, or late part of any of the previous three decades.
“Martha is Jan’s housekeeper,” Linus whispered to Daphne.
“Can I get you a mug of tea?” she asked Daphne. Her inflection seemed to indicate that the query was not whether Daphne would fancy a cup of tea, but whether she herself was capable of supplying it. Daphne wondered why she wasn’t being offered the all-pervasive Maxwell House but declined the tea just the same. Martha Downey was keenly attentive to the theologian, whose replies to his lady friend were short and repetitive (“Yes, yes” and “I understand”). It was apparent that Martha Downey was inept at reading the man’s movements, just as it was apparent that Dr. Kindermans needed to be standing in order to talk on the phone. Martha picked up a carton of half-and-half precariously tilting between the tea table’s stacks of books and left the room.
The three old men watched the theologian like this was a community rep staging of George Bernard Shaw. Daphne’s eyes roamed around the visible rooms where Jan lived. The dark-gray house was rather large and immensely valuable because of its proximity to the Harvard campus, but it was nonetheless ramshackle. The exterior frame had many quixotic ornamental features, but the fact that someone had used the same gray paint to obliterate the fineries of trim—and did so decades ago, for the siding was peeling away like birch bark—lent it a gothic aura, a sneer toward the surrounding compact of colonial quaint. Inside it was cluttered and neglect-looking. She saw in a darkened room—the dining room presumably, because of a brass chandelier tilting to one side—the front legs of a piano attempting to hide under oilcloth, probably a baby grand. It was situated under the drunken chandelier. All of the upholstered furniture around them appeared much-slept-on by muddy dogs much larger than dachshunds. Stacks of papers and partially opened mail and all varieties of print debris covered any available surface, causing Daphne to wonder what Martha Downey did with her time when not being unable to read her employer’s movements.
“Mistress Eugenie would like to see us all right now,” Jan announced. Though he’d ended the call, he looked about peevishly for someone to hand the phone off to. Daphne stood and took it from him.
“We need to talk with her about the strange things you’ve been hearing people say,” Linus told her.
“Your voices!” Jan added.
“It’s not my voices,” her own beleaguered voice replied.
“We know how you feel about her,” Linus conceded, “but she wants to help you.”
“It bothers me when you say help me when it’s probably she who has done this to me in the first place. It feels like she’s stalking me.”
“Nonsense,” Simon replied. “She never leaves her house from what I gather.”
“She’s like some kind of adversary with an unfair advantage,” she continued. “I don’t know if her power is anything real or if it only seems real because it’s crafted to play on the weakness of my mind.”
“Do you know that poem by Francis Thompson,” asked Linus, “ ‘The Hound of Heaven’?”
She made a face. “The one about God the bloodhound chasing you in your shackles through the swamps?”
He smiled. “About God in hot pursuit of the wayward soul.
I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;
I fled Him, down the arches of the years.”
“Are you saying that Mistress Eugenie is God?”
“We need to go there now,” Simon declared impatiently.
She took the opportunity to look pensive even though she’d already decided what to do. She had brought the recorder, thinking there might be a reason to use it. “OK, I’ll go,” she said abruptly. “Luckily for us, I have a luxury automobile.”
“One question,” Jan asked sternly.
She looked at him.
“Have you a compact disc device in this luxury automobile?”
“As a matter of fact, yes.”
“Then we can listen to 1938.”
Linus appeared troubled by this proposition. “What do you mean 1938?”
“Conservatory concerts,” Jan bellowed, “unearthed like potshards—merciful God help us!—and transferred to the digital medium. I am in the cache.”
“Do you know the date of the concert?” Linus asked.
“What,” Jan snapped, “1938’s not sufficient for you?”
“Dr. Kindermans, please,” Elijah said in a nursemaid tone.
“Sometime in March,” he said in relent. “No, not the day of the Anschluss. That I’d have marked with a very black stone. In Geneva was the recording. There was a strike on the street—commotion, trucking, men with jackets of coal dust. The disc was sent to me by a Brit amassing a ‘digital archive’ on Serge Koussevitsky.”
“What on earth was Koussevitsky doing with a recording of you?” asked Simon.
“Koussevitsky has nothing to do with it!” Jan shouted. “I merely said the man is working on an archive and came across this by chance—at the Royal Conservatory in Brussels. You search in the toolbox for one long nail and you find two short screws—that’s how life is!”
“When I find myself in need of a long nail,” Elijah quipped, “Brussels is the first place I turn.”
“Well what the devil are you playing then?” the short-tempered economist asked the irascible theologian.
“Sibelius’s opus 75, Five Pieces for Piano.”
“The tree suite,” Linus declared with a faint smile. He seemed troubled nonetheless.
“Does that include a song about a spruce?” asked Daphne.
“Yes, yes,” Jan snapped, “Spruce included. Nature was important to Sibelius, what with his pantheistic leanings. He said the trees ‘spoke’ to him.”
Elijah smiled. “Those catty pines always whispering behind your back!”
“Let’s stop this quibbling and get on the road,” Simon shouted, “before we cease to be a Coalition of the Willing!”
When Daphne had pulled the car in front of Jan’s thoroughly gray house, the waiting Quartet reminded her of how previously important political figures rounded up for a state funeral always looked to be grieving themselves in advance.
“I must say, my dear Daphne,” Linus observed, “this is not the car we would expect our arbiter elegantiae to be driving.”
She smiled as she helped the four into the seats her mind had already assigned them. “This car was previously owned by a ninety-year-old woman from Newton Highlands.”
“Ninety?”said Elijah. “A mere child!”
She explained that Sonja Rosenberg was driving this car to hear her son the professor at Duke give a lecture in Lowell Hall when she hit and totaled Daphne’s car, a Corolla so old Daphne didn’t carry collision insurance, whereas Sonja’s Cadillac suffered only a dent in the fender. Miraculously, neither woman suffered a scratch.
What had happened was this: Sonja’s string of beads broke, and when they fell down her dress, she thought she was being attacked by a swarm of insects. She told the police it felt like “locusts” even though it was January and her windows were rolled up. She lost control and plowed into Daphne. She felt terrible to have totaled the Corolla. Daphne tried to make her feel better by saying that she’d finally—after almost a year without full-time work—been offered a job that afternoon, so she could now afford another ten-year-old Corolla. Still Sonja felt terrible. Announcing that the shock of the accident made her realize she needed to give up driving, she gave Daphne the car on the spot, with all attachments—even the leopard-print rabbit’s foot on her keychain.
“I can’t take your car,” Daphne protested, trying to hand back the rabbit’s foot.
“You better take it now,” Sonja insisted.
“I’ll be working at Live Every Day,” Daphne argued. “I can walk every day.”
“You take the car and you drive every day.”
Sonja’s other son—whom she described as being nothing like his brilliant brother the nineteenth-century historian—was not happy. He ran a custom audio business in Watertown and talked Daphne into buying an elaborate stereo system for the Cadillac. “This makes you seem less of a gold digger,” he said when she handed him her credit card.
“Given a new Cadillac just like that!” Simon exclaimed, prolonging the crucial maneuver of folding his body any which way so as to enter the backseat. “How often does that happen?”
“The car wasn’t new,” she said. “It was seven years old then, three years ago, when I was happy.”
The men settled into their designated spots with a chorus of coughs and hacks and grunts, like what happens when an audience at Symphony Halls knows it is being taped.
“These cars do not seem as out of the ordinary as they once were,” said Jan from the passenger seat.
She nodded as she pulled away from the house, thinking that if the Quarter really did have a pimp, it wasn’t Simon’s son but her in the Caddy, rolling through the Cambridge one-ways in this tank. “So let’s hear your concert.”
She gave full rein to the theologian’s operative mode of brutalizing inanimate objects, trying not to wince as he shoved the disk into the slot three or four times before allowing her to turn the CD upside down. The recording was so scratchy it sounded like bacon frying. It also sounded to Daphne cold—like the unheated rooms of overcast European history.
“These pieces are impressionistic!” Jan announced to his captive audience.
“Turn it up!” Simon yelled. “We can’t hear!”
“This first one,” Jan hollered over the amplified sizzling, “When the Rowan Blossoms, it’s called a chanson triste. This to me sounds like one of Tchaikovsky’s works for keyboard. Deliberate miming of Tchaikovsky—Sibelius guilty, all counts!”
He listened to the performance and then interjected, “Now we have The Solitary Pine. This tree was interpreted as a symbol of Finland standing firm, high against the East.”
“What East?” asked Daphne.
“The Russians!” he yelled.
“The World War for Finland came in three parts,” Linus explained from the back. “It fended off the invading Soviets in the winder of 1940, and then it fought with the Nazis against the Soviets.”
“The fascist enemy of my fascist enemy is my fascist friend!” shouted Jan.
“But then the Finns were fighting the bloody Nazis like everyone else,” said Simon.
“Except the non-bloody French,” said Elijah.
The front and back repartee reminded Daphne of watching the U.S. Open when every former golfer still breathing had a live feed.
In short order it was The Birch, as Jan announced. “The Finns are mighty fans of the birch. This third strophe is a riddle—A flat or D flat center?” They all listened carefully to the frying bacon.
“And here’s Daphne’s Spruce!” he exclaimed. “A slow waltz, not the fast arpeggios in the Risoluto section.”
“Larkin had a thing or two to say about trees,” Elijah noted.
“Is it that they are born again
And we grow old?”
“I can’t hear the music with you gibbering poetry!” Simon yelled.
It was just a minute more of Spruce, and the performance ended.
“I told you it was brief!” Jan cried.
“You are so talented,” said Daphne.
“Were!” he shouted. “And right now I am troubled. Nettlesome Linus Steinbrenner there has me interrogating my mind to know if this concert occurred before or after the Anschluss!” And then of Daphne he asked, “You know your history, do you?”
She hesitated before nodding. “The important things, I think.”
“On the morning of 12 March the Eighth Army of the German Wehrmacht crossed the German-Austrian border. The Blumenkrieg!”
“That means War of Flowers,” Linus added, “because of it’s being an ‘invasion’ without one casualty and no resistance.”
“Between the Anschluss and the war’s beginning,” Jan went on, “there transpired my own struggle between secular art and the soul’s miserable strivings. My mind made up, I took a night train and walked to Vrije Universiteit, to the office of the astonishing Franz Kleinholz. I wasn’t yet twenty. ‘Please accept me as your journeyman, Herr Doktor.’ I admired him more than any thinker of the time.”
“I feel bad that I’ve never heard of Franz Kleinholz,” said Daphne.
“You needn’t,” he replied. “You haven’t heard of him for the same reason you haven’t heard of Trygve Fenstad.”
“Think of them,” said Simon. “The obliterated names we’d have known by heart.”
“He was Jewish?” asked Daphne.
“Yes,” said Jan, “but a Christian convert. And do you know what that means?”
She shook her head at the road ahead.
“It means he enjoyed the privilege of starving to death somewhat clothed in a labor camp versus being stripped and gassed in a death camp.”
The car was silent.
“If you haven’t felt a corpse,” he went on, “haven’t carried one for any distance, you have no right to send soldiers anywhere. You cannot command the fates of human beings if you haven’t had a corpse to take care of. They are cold, and if submerged in water—heavy. Very heavy with the water in the lungs. Though their arms turn to stone, they clutch at you, make chilling claims on you—lifelong claims. They come to you night after night, clutching your neck with their cold stone arms. They come to you to help them, do something for them, anything you can for them—carry them back in time to when it still wasn’t too late. They demand you love only them. They forbid anything else. They demand you submit—and bid farewell to sleeping peacefully. Ever, ever again.”
No one spoke as Daphne waited to turn onto the Mystic Valley Parkway toward Medford, the dashboard directional signaling their collective distress: click-clock, click-clock, click-clock. ¶