“Did I mention I hate this cage?” Daphne complained as she closed herself into Queequeg’s domain.
“We have trapped ourselves quite a lobster,” said Linus from the same seat he had occupied the week before. “Live Every Day.”
“Would you prefer that as your myth,” asked Elijah, “turning into a lobster rather than a tree?”
“Given that people don’t normally boil a tree while it’s still alive,” she answered, “I’ll stick with the laurel.”
“I don’t recall the myth you’re quibbling about,” said Jan. “Somebody please refresh my mind.”
“Refreshing your mind is well beyond any human’s capacity!” Simon snapped.
“I’ll do the honors,” Elijah replied, clearing his throat. “Apollo, as we know, could be an idiot.”
“Hear, hear,” Simon concurred.
“And idiots,” Elijah continued, “tend to think that teasing is the be-all and end-all to public life.”
“Like certain dubiously elected presidents!” Jan added.
“So Apollo teased Eros about his skills as an archer,” Elijah went on. “Given that this was a prized skill, Eros was livid. He grabbed his quiver and shot two arrows, one tipped with gold and the other with lead. The gold-tipped arrow had the power to instill insatiable lust in whomever it struck, whereas the lead-tipped one had the power to create complete abhorrence toward passion and romance. The poor soul struck with the lead arrow would have no desire to love anyone.”
Simon granted. “He must’ve had more than one of those arrows then!”
“Wouldn’t you know,” Elijah continued, “Eros’s gold-tipped arrow struck Apollo, and his lead-tipped arrow struck the fair maiden Daphne, daughter of the river god Peneus. The newly lusty Apollo chased down Daphne, desperate for her love. Repulsed, Daphne fled him endlessly. She soon grew tired of running from her pursuer. It demoralized her being made to feel like a wild beast charging through the forest. And so she beseeched her father for any kind of help. Peneus proved quite a miserable excuse for a god. The best he could come up with for Daphne was transforming her into a laurel tree. Her legs took root and her arms grew into branches.”
Linus nodded. “Apollo was in love with Daphne nonetheless, as a laurel tree.”
“A truly mixed marriage,” said Elijah.
“When I met you, Linus,” said Daphne, “you told me that the story of Daphne and Apollo had lessons for nations. What are they?”
“Freedom at all costs,” he replied, “even if the cost is your own people’s livelihood. The mythological Daphne refused to come to the bargaining table.”
“And how about the biological Daphne,” asked Elijah. “Will you come to the bargaining table, my dear?”
She made an animal’s whelp from her cage.
“Ha!” shouted Jan. “Soon she’ll be baying at the moon!”
“Daphne Passerine,” said Linus with mock-grandeur, “our very own Beast in the Jungle.”
These words made her smile—smile at the irony of her mother beating them all to the punch, back when Daphne was a child always running away. “Why, you little beast!” Rosemary Passerine had shrieked like some silver screen actress in an Art Deco drawing room. She clenched her thumb, gesturing to the stunned, sad people at the low-life bus station that she’d received this wound from her own flesh and blood.
Daphne’s smile disappeared when she saw the drooping canopy with its half-lit string of lights. The group’s arrival chez Eugenie was faithful to precedent: the entryway remained as dark as the opening of a cave; the din from televisions and radios felt all-consuming; the mistress again yanked people inside; again she was attired in saris under-girded by long-johns; again she stripped the men of their coats like she was shearing sheep; and again she dropped the vestments on the stacked cardboard boxes in the stairway.
“All you, in here!” she shouted, leading the group into the room opposite that of their last visit. “How about I turn your cards?” she asked Daphne with a wink.
“That’s why you called me here?”
“No, but why not while you’re here?”
“Because it’s rude to waste my friends’ time—and besides that it’s crap.”
From the depths of her saris the mistress extracted a card deck. “You don’t believe in tarot?”
“No,” Daphne mocked, “I don’t believe in tarot.”
“You are sure you don’t want me to turn your cards for you?”
“Look,” said Daphne, “when you’re by yourself and you’re bored, go ahead and turn my cards. You can find out that I’ll lose all my money and be destitute and on the street and will get some horrible disease and die a slow, painful death. Do that on your own time, but don’t drag me and my friends into your game.”
“Oh, you are already in my game,” she said, smiling and shuffling her deck. She plucked a card that she held face-out to Daphne. The Hermit. “This is card for when you met Linus at Anna’s cemetery. See? The wise old man is holding onto light, just like Linus.”
Daphne suddenly realized that not everything was the same as a week ago. “You forgot your dot,” she said, staring at the woman’s clear forehead.
Eugenie shrugged. “I have my good days and bad—you know what I’m sayin’? Like Liz Taylor and all them.”
Daphne looked for solidarity to her friends but saw only stoic faces. “So what do you want to ask me?”
“For your card,” Eugenie went on, “I would give Falconress.” She plucked another card that she held face-out. “Nine Pentacles. You see this lady and the yellow and red dress? This lovely lady I think is voice of the lady I hear telling about five aspects classical rhetoric. And I think this card is for you.”
Daphne looked away from the yellow and red dress. The room’s awkwardly placed centerpiece wasn’t the Beatles but a ceramic statue of Buddha on a pedestal—a bizarrely mustached likeness that brought him down to the level of Frito Bandito. The walls contained the same kind of framed Kama Sutra images seen at every other Indian restaurant in Central Square. The thing that gave Daphne pause, however, was more of those gilded-frame Zodiac constellations. The same seven, in fact.
“You moved these?” she asked, glancing at the pictures.
“I don’t move things,” the mistress replied gravely, “how could I with arthritis in joints?”
Daphne briskly walked to the other room and briskly returned. “You told me you ran out of space,” she charged. “You said this was the reason you didn’t have all twelve. And here you have seven in one room and the same seven in another room.”
“If I only had more space!” the mistress mused. “I would have twelve and twelve. And you would be happy and I would be happy and all the little children in Africa would be happy.”
“There’s no Taurus,” Daphne snapped. “And no Aquarius.”
“I know what belongs,” she replied, smiling craftily. “I know who belongs. I know what belongs to what, who belongs to who.”
Daphne looked away. “So why am I here?”
“I want you look at my special picture!” the mistress exclaimed, motioning the group to a dark corner where a tattered shawl shrouded a frame beneath. She tugged to remove the shawl and then twisted on a brass lamp to illuminate the image. It was an oil portrait, beautiful and lustrous, that Daphne recognized immediately as Nathaniel Hawthorne, just like the famous painting that hung in a Salem museum.
“I hope you didn’t steal this,” she said.
“It’s quite remarkable, isn’t it?” said Linus.
“Please say it’s not stolen,” she implored.
“Life makes two of everything,” Eugenie said cheerfully. “Two of the same kitty-cat, two Scorpio in the sky, two Nathaniel Hawthorne the great writer.”
“I believe she’s in the clear,” Elijah offered in reassurance.
“A stunning replica of the Osgood,” Linus added.
“He was a handsome devil,” Simon observed.
Jan diverged from the consensus: “A selfish opportunist from what I know!”
“Why do you keep it covered?” Daphne asked.
“It needs protection,” she answered, “just like people.”
“But why him?” Daphne pressed.
“Like I said,” the mistress replied, reaching into the labyrinths of her saris, “I know who belongs.” Her outstretched hand presented an object that infuriated but somehow did not surprise Daphne.
“No way,” she said, shaking her head.
It was a blue phone like Linus’s and Simon’s and Jan’s and Elijah’s.
“You know why is all I’m sayin’.”
“No,” Daphne said sharply. “I don’t know why.”
“You know why you know why.”
“All I know is that this is a shell game!” Daphne shouted.
The mistress was unfazed. “Two of everything,” she continued. “Two of the same kitty-cat, two Scorpio in the sky, two Nathaniel Hawthorne the great writer, two halves of broken heart.” She walked over to place the phone on the glistening table.
“Yeah, I know people who’ve died,” said Daphne, following her. “And I know what you do. What you do is you play on people’s vanity that the universal is somehow unique to them—their vanity and their pain. It’s a lousy way to make a living.”
The mistress smiled and started to sing, wagging the index finger of each hand like a choirmaster: “If there’s anything that you want, if there’s anything I can do . . . Come on, all you guys sing with me for this girl. If there’s anything that you want, if there’s anything I can do . . . ”
“Just call on me,” Elijah continued in his brittle voice, “and I’ll send it along . . . ”
Linus concluded:“ . . . with love, from me to you.”
“OK, you guys,” the mistress continued, “now we sing the Little Stevie Wonder phone song!”
Daphne felt her forehead hot to the touch, like a curling iron, as Eugenie began swaying like someone holding a karaoke mike. “I just called to say—”
“Is there a bathroom in here?” Daphne yelled.
Eugenie pointed her through the dark foyer and into the passage left of the stairs and ultimately a white door with so many layers of paint you had to pull like a funhouse gag. She was relieved to find a room with plumbing and square yellow tiles—tiles maybe fifty years old but tiles nonetheless—along with a claw-foot tub, drying rack, layers upon layers of damp saris and paisley shawls and fringed swaths draped over the shower rod, and in the corner a tall, thin hissing radiator lurching forward like a praying mantis.
The sink console was cluttered with salvaged food jars filled with eye pencils and mascara sticks and tubes of what appeared to be theatrical makeup. On a shelf above the toilet were ancient jars of creams and brown ointments stacked according to size in side-by-side pyramids; the names of most of them Daphne had never heard of. At the base of one pyramid was a clear-glass jar the width of a grapefruit on steroids; the label said “Rexall” and the contents looked to be chalky yellow sulfur. Topping the pyramid was something familiar—the electric cobalt of a Noxema jar, probably new at the time of Kennedy’s inauguration.
After splashing water on her face and looking into the brown-veined mirror, Daphne shoved open the door to find Mistress Eugenie as an alternate barrier.
“Are you going to hurt me?” Daphne asked.
The woman smiled and shook her head. “I know you’re the girl who does not believe Eugenie, asking your questions, knowing everything already.”
“I didn’t want to come here, so don’t threaten me.”
“You know everything, do you? So why not you tell me how these old guys get around to cemeteries? They walk on the grass, right? And they might slip and fall on the icy grass, right? And you think they are fiddle fit and lucky and that’s why they don’t go down? You think no big deal to that? You think no big deal Linus Steinbrenner is ninety-three years old and out of hospital just like that? If you think that, my friend, you don’t know nothin’. And let me tell you something else. I come from very old country, so if I drop ‘articles’ it is custom for brats like you to get down on knees and pick them up for me.”
“Are you going to hurt them?” Daphne pressed.
“Me?” she said with a laugh. “I love those guys. Those guys my best confidents.”
“They act strange here. They’re not themselves.”
“And you know themselves?” Eugenie asked with an even heartier laugh. “Like I told you, you don’t know what I give them.”
“Well they don’t want it.”
She laughed. “They love me right back. They think I have special magic.”
“You’re not impressing me.”
“You don’t know what I can give.”
“You can keep your stupid phone.”
“My confidents want you to be safe with your cell phone. They worry like brothers to you.”
“They’re a little old to be my brothers.”
“But you have brother, right?”
“You did your homework.”
“Yes, true, true. But I have question for you. Why did you give him back Christmas present, that phone he gave to you and with bill paid for whole year?”
“It’s none of your business what goes on between my brother and me.”
“You want to know why Linus throws bottle Lanoxin away in garbage, right? You want to know why he fires that nice girl Gwen, right? You want to know why he uses phone by himself in cemetery, like I tell him not to. I know why to all these, but I don’t know why to your brother.”
Trygve Frost’s rapid-fire honking managed to pierce the din from the four corners of Mistress Eugenie’s enormous house.
“We have to go,” Daphne said, pushing past the woman’s short sturdy body. “Simon’s son waits for no man or beast.”
“One more thing,” Eugenie said with a wide grin. “What you think about Monkeyman is true. So YOU gotta do something about it.”
The distribution and reapplication of coats, hats, and scarves in the foyer seemed to absorb as much time as the fruit of the visit.
“You want to go say goodbye to my Nathaniel Hawthorne?” Eugenie asked as Daphne straightened Jan’s collar from the back.
“No,” she said flatly.
“How ’bout you rub my Buddha’s belly for luck?”
“No!” she snapped. “He looks like something from a spaghetti western.”
The mistress’s expression tuned sad. “He looks like my Uncle Javier—my famous Uncle Javier who sold tamales to Dick Nixon.”
The walk under the canopy to the car seemed much longer than last time. Daphne imagined Eugenie having done some abracadabra to add another thirty feet of front yard—though for what reason she hadn’t a clue.
The return trip began on a somber note. “I don’t want to criticize any of your beliefs,” she declared, “or any of your theories about her, but I don’t want her intruding into my life. She has no right to make up stuff about me. I don’t believe in it.”
“If you don’t believe it,” Trygve yelled back, “then you’re safe. It’s like the hoodoo thing—if you buy into it, that’s when they put the spell on you.”
“We don’t want you to have a phone if you don’t want one,” Linus consoled.
From the containment of her cage she cringed at her inability to communicate with these four brilliant minds of the American century. Why did all four clam up with Eugenie? Jan barely said a word; the chatterbox Elijah listened like a juror.
“I think you should fire me as your arbiter elegantiae,” she told them. “There’s a conflict of interest here, and I’ve barely started the job. I haven’t written much down, only stuff Simon said I wasn’t supposed to.”
“If Simon says put your hands on your hips,” Elijah advised, “don’t you do it!”
“Daphne,” Simon began in a chastened tone, “we don’t want to lose you.”
With the economist’s humble admission, Daphne’s felt the same duress she had with the theologian’s earlier pleading and with Linus and Elijah’s singing the Beatles for her. She wanted none of them to be in this situation, and she resented Trygve’s being privy to it.
“All those in favor of sacking Daphne say aye!” Elijah shouted, the proposition directly followed by four Bronx cheers.
The most she could promise was that she’d think about it. She again asked to be lot off in Davis Square, where she realized that her compulsion to expose Mistress Eugenie—to unravel those saris and hear drop the crowbar and the blowtorch and the sticks of dynamite—was now as strong as her compulsion to protect the Quartet. And yet it made her feel like a creep—picking on this little woman with her radios and all the money she was throwing away to keep that huge house at a catatonic 82 degrees. Who but a creep would bully the niece of a presidential tamale-vendor, this woman gamely prepared to have a go at the Little Stevie Wonder phone song? What if Mistress Eugenie truly believed herself to be psychic? What if she thought she was performing an angelic service to the old men?
“How could ya miss it? Only an idiot would miss it. You come off the exit and it’s right there next to Liquor Land.”
The man walking past her while yelling into his phone wasn’t a teenager or a college student but someone old enough to be her grandfather. The web of instantaneous communication now included grandfathers in addition to so many girls like the one walking directly in front of her: “He was all, like, you know, ‘You knew I was going out.’ I’m like, ‘Yea-ah?’ And he’s like, ‘What?’ I’m like, ‘Fine. Whatever.’ You know?”
What was this language? What was this stuff they were telling each other? Daphne had accelerated her pace to pass the girl, when, suddenly, from the very same girl, she heard clearly elocuted, “Elsewhere underwrites my existence.”
Daphne stopped and turned; the girl had started crossing Elm Street—jaywalking directly into traffic, her only defense against pulverization under bus wheels being the obvious fact that she was otherwise engaged. They had to know, these random entities behind the wheel, that she was having a conversation and thus it was their responsibility to act accordingly.
But the more pressing concern was that this girl was now getting away, the one who had just said “Elsewhere underwrites my existence.” Why did she say that? The situation was a carbon copy of last week—same time, same place. And then Daphne realized it was another North Face jacket walking away—maybe even the same girl she had heard say “No one should be alone.”
She was prepared to follow, to hunt down the perpetrator of this coincidence, but the girl was already across the street, walking and talking her way through the lives of strangers who were in turn walking and talking their way here, there, and everywhere. As Daphne waited for a break in the traffic she heard from a guy approaching from the opposite side of the street, jaywalking right through traffic and otherwise engaged in his very own elsewhere: “No one wins but the bad guys.”