“If I don’t frighten, things don’t get done, people don’t get changed.” Another boy with a phone—college-aged, but his hunger for story made him seem not past fifteen, a Pixar rendition of himself.
“So unlike the noble decade of Dr. King!” Daphne recognized Jan’s words by the buoyant inflection, despite their being pulverized by an Asian woman smoking outside the cleaners where she apparently worked. She was small but stocky and had wrinkles like parentheses on either side of her eyes, a pull of skin that would seem to deny any and all attempts at smiling. After “So unlike the noble decade of Dr. King!” she resumed speaking Cantonese into her phone.
Daphne was on her way to the home of the Ludenberrys on Avon Hill, their entrée a mews alleyway of cobblestones abutted by bulging top-heavy row houses in some kind of pretend-world Tudor. She stopped at the number Elijah had given and was greeted by a woman brusquely exiting the front door—petite, sixty-ish, short haircut that an academic might consider stylish, and most noticeably a pastel-colored pantsuit.
“Ellen Ludenberry,” the woman declared. Daphne’s instinct was to correct the misperception (“I’m not Ellen Ludenberry”), but instead she shook the hand thrust at her, nodding when the woman added, “You must be part of Elijah’s little group.”
Ellen Ludenberry’s husband, Conrad, had last year won a Pulitzer with a book on Einstein. Daphne had read that it took Conrad Ludenberry fourteen years to write six chapters, but he didn’t gain momentum or find a publisher until he found a coauthor, an ambitious young Czech. Conrad’s wife pointed Daphne up a short flight of stairs beyond the flagstone floor of the foyer. “Tell him he’s not permitted to bore anyone to death with his drollery.”
Soon Daphne was inside another of these Cambridge-unique dwellings passed among bloodlines of the cultural elite—first Simon’s stone monstrosity, then Linus’s Right Bank–sized apartment, and now this Tudor invention of Elijah’s relatives. In the crass world of “real estate,” such properties were the ladies’ menu with the prices decorously omitted.
“I’m in here, whoever,” Elijah called out when she reached the top of the stairs and stood in a foyer leading to several rooms that could have been attractive had it not been for too many brashly placed objects—souvenirs, collectibles, investments.
“I guess whoever must be me,” she said upon entering a dark-paneled room.
Elijah sat in a massive upholstered chair of an amazingly vivid green velour, like new-growth moss, crammed between two sofas of faded chintz. Without his beret, he resembled a small animal caught sniffling about a garden, the kind that could easily be swallowed whole by an animal not much bigger than itself.
“Did you meet the niece I just sent packing?”
“She’s made my hapless nephew the most dreadful kind of social climber. She’s only consented to babysit me for the connection it provides to Simon and Linus. Without them I’m nothing.”
“Don’t say that.”
“She’s the director of the Pimpernel School for Girls, off Brattle Street.”
She had to cringe. “Isn’t the tuition there as much as Harvard’s?”
“My boss calls it the School for Pimply Girls.”
He laughed. “Jean Brodie’s rejects!”
“Do they have kids, the Ludenberrys?”
“That’s the best part! Alexandra and Alexander—better known as Alex-girl and Alex-boy. Luckily for themselves, they’re grown and out of the nest.”
On the walk there, Daphne had eagerly anticipated having this private moment to tell Elijah about the tricks her mind was playing. But now she thought otherwise of unloading her burden onto this old man.
“Is that a housekeeper?” she asked, for she could hear someone—a woman, young-sounding—speaking Spanish in another part of the house.
“Indentured servants,” he replied, “an entire family of girls without papers by the name of Anguiano. My niece-in-law keeps them confined to the kitchen and bath and provides instructions en Espagnol on how they should go about microwaving my gruel three times a day.”
“Does she at least pay them well?”
“I pay them,” he replied, “and I would say that it’s well, though I am the world’s oldest living cheapskate.”
She looked at him.
“Yes, I know you’re surprised that a decrepit sod like me would have anything left of his acorn stash. But if another of their boys needs braces, we’ll all be out on the street.”
The doorbell rang with an Avon ding-dong, and like a flash—a chipmunk spied from the corner of your eye—the body of that Spanish voice from elsewhere could be seen scampering across the foyer and down the stairs to answer the door. Elijah looked at Daphne: “She usually does that while shaking a daiquiri.”
“She doesn’t have to rush to open the door when I’m here to do it.”
“That’s our Celestia, always making everyone else look bad.”
Daphne went down to see an irate Simon giving the girl a hard time. “My better half has again ‘stuck’ the car,” he shouted upon seeing Daphne, “and is in dire need of someone’s ‘unstucking’ it to her advantage.” In his perturbation, he seemed even spindlier in his exaggerated height, like he was a delivery just assembled from flat parts in two large boxes.
Daphne left him to Celestia and walked down the alleyway to find Linus and Susan Frost, the evacuees, staring at the car’s predicament, which Jan’s place behind the wheel hadn’t remedied.
“Oh, you!” Susan Frost exclaimed in her Bette Davis rasp. “Jan, please, surrender your position to someone with working eyes.”
“Yet another stalemate,” Linus said with a sigh.
Jan opened the door and began the valiant assault that was getting out of a car. “You need to get her on the road before the sun goes down,” he shouted at Daphne, “or she’ll turn into a werewolf!”
“Susan won’t drive after dark,” Linus informed Daphne.
“Don’t ever get old,” Susan said idly but in a bitter tone. “You can’t see a goddamned thing.”
“Language!” Jan yelled, his presumed intention to toss Daphne the keys yielding a stark thud on her chest.
“Oh, language yourself,” Susan pooh-poohed. “My new car already has another gnash on its chin and I’m fit to be tied.”
Daphne managed to extract and right the Lexus with the help of Celestia’s “Dele, dele. No, espere—¡muy lejos, muy lejos!” When she had positioned the car as would a valet outside a restaurant, Susan Frost cheered. “Well, hooray finally!” Her petite form was so rigid that she moved like a South Park character—no visible means of lower-body locomotion.
“My son is scheduled to collect them in an hour’s time,” she informed Daphne as she got into the car, “but if he fails, Simon has the number of a limousine service to call instead. It’s in his wallet. If he says he can’t find it, take his wallet and look yourself.”
Daphne returned to find the dark-paneled study thick with old men and silver trays of powder-coated cookies and stacked petit-fours. As she maneuvered to sit down among them and their mugs of tea, she realized how much she’d missed their company. She pulled out her notebook and pen, heading directly into the headlights of Das Blaue-Fischreiher-Quartett.
Linus, particularly distressed by the secretary of state, lamented, “In my day diplomats played for both sides.”
“Tell that to the jackals in this administration!” yelled Jan. “One of them gets sent to the U.N. and they need to nail down the furniture!”
“What would Churchill say to the sniping and vindictiveness that mar our political scene?” wondered Linus. “When a young politician, he was close friends with his primary political rival, F. E. Smith, and the two founded the Other Club, an amicable social club for members of both parties.”
“I’m having a difficult time imagining Paul Wolfowitz in an Other Club with Jacques Chirac,” Elijah said bitterly.
“Chirac?” exclaimed Jan. “What about an Other Club with Ayatollah Khamenei?”
“I keep telling you,” Linus said with exasperation. “This isn’t about religion.”
“Religion is being hijacked by idiots on both ends,” Simon continued in a professorial tone.
“Religious history: bloody, vicious, soul-cheapening!” Jan shouted. “That is how I have always taught it. Though I will continue to fight the Hobbesians tooth and claw!”
“The Crusades and the Inquisition,” Simon went on, “the religious wars in France, the English civil war, the ravages of the Ottoman empire, the Troubles in Northern Ireland, the slaughter in Sarajevo.”
Here we go again, Daphne thought. Martin Luther, Martin Buber, Martin Heidegger, Reinhold Niebuhr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Eric the Bold, Vlad the Impaler—everything but the meat and potatoes of why glowing blue phones meant contact with the hereafter.
“The minds of the Enlightenment,” Jan began in a more reasoned tone, “believed Christianity would change from faith-based reality to reality-based faith. Enlightened Christians made public ritual into private belief.”
Linus added, “Both Hume and Adams argued that a liberal democracy cannot survive without cultivating liberal thinking among religious believers.”
“Yes, yes!” Jan shouted. “Schleiermacher’s nineteenth-century disciples made theological liberalism the dominant school of Protestant theology in Germany, Britain, and the States. All of the mainline faiths in this country—Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians.”
Daphne had to interrupt: “How do you spell Schleiermacher?”
“Like it sounds!” he snapped. “But in these past decades,” he went on, “mainline faiths are disintegrating while evangelical, Pentecostal, charismatic sects are on the rise. We are going backward—from reality-based faith to faith-based reality—back to literalist extremes of the Great Awakenings.”
“The Holy Rollers are no longer confined to the bingo parlors!” Elijah exclaimed.
“No joking matter!” Jan hollered. “Enlightenment culture is disintegrating.”
Linus shook his head. “Yes, Jan, but we must acknowledge that the success of the Christian left in the postwar era makes it indistinguishable from secular left-leaning movements today. In some sense we have won.”
“But at what cost to the mainline faiths?” Jan asked. “Christian liberals have stopped worshiping together while morons on the right are fascinated with ‘end times’ and self-serving miracles. These ignorant, separatist instincts—mindless to science and history, censoring textbooks, home-schooling with corrupt logic and nonexistent ‘facts.’ ”
Daphne underlined “nonexistent facts” three times during the ensuing silence. When no one picked up the stitch from Jan’s tirade, she ventured, “Tour guides at the Grand Canyon won’t tell people it’s more than five million years old. They don’t want to offend the fundamentalists.”
“Science is under assault!” cried Simon.
“This dumbing-down of religion!” Jan went on, as if jolted by a paramedic’s paddles. “We’re being assaulted by ‘unchurched religionists’—believers in angels and trance-channeling and the kookniks who think the Mayan calendar foretells world’s end in 2012.”
Simon grumbled before speaking. “The issues I have are precisely with what you call ‘churched religionists.’ I cannot muster fears about the trance people taking over.”
Daphne was seriously confused. How was what the four of them were doing with Eugenie in any way exempt? Who were the kookniks in this equation?
Elijah seemed to notice her distress. “Daphne, do you remember whose context and syntax I asked that you attribute to me?”
“Precisely. Bertrand Russell claimed in 1930 that he could think of only two useful contributions that religion had made to civilization: It had helped to fix the calendar, and it had made Egyptian priests observe eclipses carefully enough to predict them.”
“Elijah!” Jan shouted. “What of those great visions of Isaiah—every person fed, no more strife, the ill healed, enslaved peoples released?”
“Do you need a religion to envision human happiness?” he replied.
Simon added sternly, “Wanting people fed and warfare ended—is that the pursuit of ‘happiness’ or an expected level of moral decency in social contracts?”
“Bucky would say the latter,” Linus offered.
“Correct!” yelled Simon. “And so say I, we, us! Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs—nothing to do with human happiness.”
“So how would you define happiness?” Linus asked him.
Simon thought for a moment. “As Smith wrote in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, ‘The chief part of human happiness arises from the consciousness of being loved.’ ”
The group took well to this suggestion until Elijah weighed in: “And for Americans, that happiness can also be achieved from the consciousness of being loved by oneself.”
“I have to agree with Elijah,” Daphne averred. “We’re a country of happy narcissists. We are our SUVs, straddling two handicap spaces when it rains.”
“You’re both talking mere comfort!” Jan shouted, again on the warpath. “Consumer-manufactured comfort!”
Linus smiled at the banter. “Even Freud could see that the intention that man should be happy is not included in the plan of creation.”
“A God who doesn’t view human happiness as the reason for creation?” asked Jan. “Who wants that kind of God? But that is the very God the nonbelievers take aim at, not seeing the singular paradox of religious faith.”
“Which is?” snapped Simon.
“That the truth of happiness lies in our renouncing the RIGHT to be happy.”
Another sustained silence—and again the group seemed to expect something from Daphne. “I think I’ve renounced the right to be happy,” she said, “but I don’t think it has made me happy.”
“As I said,” Jan’s voice thundered, “the problem is your incorrect association of comfort with happiness!”
He was being too much of a scold, too much the brutal headmaster. “Yet another thing I’m doing wrong,” she admitted with a heavy sigh.
Her defeatist stance allowed the four a moment to shift gears in their offensive.
“What are your faults, Daphne?” Simon asked firmly.
“Yes, Daphne,” Elijah immediately chimed in, “tell us what they are, for we plan to number them—one through ten.”
“That’s what you now must do in a job interview,” Linus offered. “And from what I gather, there are good self-recognized faults and bad self-recognized faults.”
“Good faults or bad, Daphne?” Simon pressed.
“Enquiring minds want to know,” Elijah added with glee. “Are you a good witch or a bad witch?”
“One through ten!” Jan bellowed.
She cast her eyes about the dark study—more lights needed to be switched on. The sofas’ faded chintz was a horizontal blur, like a sequence of crude hyphens connecting the bodies of Simon, Jan, and Linus, although the velour chair enveloping Elijah looked as garden-green as ever.
“One,” she began warily. “I hide from the official world, the world of accurate numbers and precision.”
“We’ll buy that,” said Elijah.
That one was cribbed, for “the world of accurate numbers and precision” had been Andy’s phrase during her last performance review.
“Two,” she continued. “I intentionally make my world hazy—occluded would be the SAT word—so as to serve as cover while I try to win the skirmish by my own means.”
“That was a clever fault,” observed Simon. “I might even have chosen that one for myself.”
“Had you any faults to enumerate,” noted Elijah.
“So what are these ‘means’ of yours?” asked Jan.
“Three,” she went on. “My means have proved to be woefully inadequate.”
“Ha!” Jan shouted.
“Four: But I pigheadedly use them nonetheless.”
“The girl’s not even benefiting from our proffered wisdom!” Simon declared, throwing up his hands.
Somehow the exercise reminded her of a college boyfriend who wanted to see how many grapes she could hold in her mouth at one time.
“Five,” she continued. “I refuse to take advice. Six: And thus I make more and more blunders. Seven: And my blunders require a murkier and murkier atmosphere—”
“Occlusion!” said Jan with a laugh.
“Like that most dreaded meteorological forecast,” added Linus. “Widespread haze.”
“Yes,” she continued, “widespread haze, so as to provide adequate cover.”
“What’s all this ‘cover’ business?” Simon wanted to know. “Who on earth do you think is after you?”
“Yeah, Daph,” said Elijah, “who is it has their guns pointed at your hide?”
She couldn’t answer that. “Eight: I need the right cover to hide from the world.” She noticed that no one was taking any of this down. “I don’t face my demons,” she continued. “That would be nine.”
“And ten?” asked Jan.
“Ten is that I don’t know what my demons are.”
“That sounds like a girl in trouble!” cried Simon.
Daphne looked at Linus. “I told you I wasn’t the real thing.”
“We think you are,” he replied.
“The real thing who’s hearing demon voices!” cried Jan.
She was startled. “I’m NOT hearing demon voices,” she argued, looking at Linus.
“I asked our group for advice on your situation,” he casually explained.
“So are you afraid?” asked Simon.
“No,” she replied faintly.
“Not of anything?” Jan shouted.
“Yes, I’m afraid of things,” she admitted, “but I know what I fear.”
“You just got through telling us you don’t what your demons are!” Simon yelled.
“Yes,” she said, feeling even more confused. “Yes, and I guess I’m afraid of that.”
“Knowing the thing you fear is the best way to live in the past!” Jan preached.
She felt abandoned. Where was Elijah when she needed him? “Everyone lives in the past partly,” she reasoned, “because how can you not?”
“My friend Cartier-Bresson says that the past always comes back to you,” Linus said, “like a burp.”
“Or the compulsion to cry over boxes of candies!” Jan shouted.
It took a moment for her to realize what he meant. “I was crying over lost cats.”
“I believe that’s the equivalent of crying over spilt milk,” said Simon.
Why were they suddenly on her case, ganging up in a nasty maneuver that her brother would call a full-court press? Why was she suddenly the one with the problem?
“Whose cats were these that made you cry?” asked Linus.
Elijah mused in a singsong tone, “Whose cats these are I think I know . . . ”
“We were asking Daphne!” Simon yelled.
“A friend’s,” she replied.
“Which friend?” asked Linus.
“I can’t remember.”
“What do you mean you can’t remember?” Jan shouted. “You remembered the cats’ names!”
“X, Y, or Z,” she said. “What does it matter?”
“To Y it would matter,” Linus observed, “so as not to be mistaken for Z.”
“OK,” Daphne conceded, “let’s call him X.”
“What is the X for?” asked Elijah.
“I don’t know.”
More silence, but not the good kind. They were reloading.
“X has to stand for something,” said Simon.
“If you simultaneously press control and X on your keyboard,” she said, “that cuts the text you have highlighted.”
“I can do that!” Elijah exclaimed.
Simon clapped sarcastically: “Still in retention of his marbles!”
Jan leaned forward like the crotchety senator who’d just backed a shell-shocked Supreme Court nominee into a corner. “Where is your home, Daphne Passerine?” His voice sounded like Boris Karloff’s.
“You know I live in Somerville.”
“I mean your real home, the place you feel you belong.”
She feared this question would lead to yet another revelation of something she had failed at. “I don’t think I have one.”
“The German word Heimat has no good English equivalent,” he said. “None! It means homeland—less in the nationalistic sense than that related to language, earliest childhood experiences, the sense of being part of a clan or tribe.”
She shook her head at him.
“Heimat,” he continued, the word uttered like a jujitsu cry, “as emotion, is elemental, a gut feeling of belonging—one that provincials who travel abroad feel in jeopardy, so in that respect it would appear to be the antithesis of all that is modern. But! It is also felt as being invested with a purpose—and one by no means of one’s own choosing—endowed with a mission! a search for a path! an arc of life! a completion!—to be born, to turn, to turn again, to return as a native.”
“So your tour of duty is not ‘Go out! Conquer the world!’ ” Simon observed with a sour face, “but ‘Go back home!’? I don’t think I like your Heimat.”
“I take Heimat broadly,” Jan argued. “For me, Heimat is the German language. Yes, Deutsch, the Father Tongue of Schiller and Goethe, Goebbels and Goering. My life became auf deutsch during the war. That’s how Maja and I communicated. We were married by a Dutch magistrate who spoke Deutsch to impress a Sicherheitsdienst agent and his collaborator bride waiting in the wings. The language was neither mine nor hers, but our speaking what we had learned for the purpose of intellectual rigor—speaking amid the Moffen murdering our friends and kindred—made it feel like a place, a sanctuary, a home. Daphne needs to look for that—where it is, this place, this sanctuary.”
The past suddenly returned to the group not as Cartier-Bresson’s burp but as a horn—Trygve Frost’s horn being beaten by Trygve Frost’s fist.
For once Daphne was relieved to hear signaled the premature conclusion of the Quartet’s hour. As the four contributed to the generalized scuttle of standing, she couldn’t help but glance at her wrist.
“And what does our Alice say?” asked Linus.
“She says it’s still two hours ago.”
“Pawn it and wire the money!” bellowed Jan.
“Oh, that Father Time,” said Elijah.
“That Father Time out in the car charges by the half-hour!” Simon scoffed.
Daphne’s stewardship at getting the wayfarers attired and geared up for the outside could only be described as feeble, especially her attempts to expedite clearance of the stairs. By the time the last of the three had been loaded into the car Trygve had perilously backed into the alleyway, she almost forgot how so the men had upset her. After she went back inside and up the stairs, it all came back.
“I can’t believe Linus told you I was hearing demon voices,” she said, sitting on the sofa.
“That was Jan’s embellishment,” said Elijah.
“Do you all think I’m crazy? Is that why you ganged up on me?”
“I really am hearing things. I think I’m losing my mind.”
“We shall take you to see Oliver Saks,” he proposed, “make a case of you to amuse New Yorker readers at the dentist’s office.”
“Helloo!” came a voice from the stairwell, punctuated by the closing of the front door.
Elijah leaned toward Daphne to whisper, “Two things, my dear: First, you are not losing your mind. Second, methinks approacheth the Director of the School for Pimply Girls.”
Momentarily Ellen Ludenberry and her pastel pantsuit appeared at the room’s threshold. “Here I had rushed home,” she complained, “and made this Olympian effort to get ready for this dinner at the Charles, and wouldn’t you know I had the night wrong!” She looked around the room and made a pout. “Oh dear, you mean I missed seeing Linus?”
“Oh, boohoo!” Elijah exclaimed.
“Oh boohoo yourself,” she replied, waving a hand. “And now if you’ll excuse me I need to finagle some kind of dinner reservation as Plan B. And also find some fellow diners and head my husband off at the pass.”
When she disappeared, Daphne whispered, “She’s not so bad.”
“Contained within her element, no.”
“Mistress Eugenie, on the other hand, is really bad news.”
He thought on this. “The people who believe in her—confide in her—say that something about her demeanor brings them to self-knowledge.”
“I still say she’s bad news.”
“John Barth said self-knowledge is always bad news.”
“You can get self-knowledge in other ways,” she argued. “Usually people try psychotherapy.”
“Talking about the past is not my idea of a good time.”
“But isn’t that what literature is—talking about the past?”
“Robert Lowell likened talking about the past to a cat’s trying to explain climbing down a ladder.”
“But we need to talk about the past,” she argued. “We need to ask questions.”
“According to Stevens, ‘The man’—or woman—‘who asks questions seeks only to reach a point where it will no longer be necessary for him to ask questions.’ ”
“I know that quote.”
“You should. You ask enough questions.”
“But if you’re really looking,” she said, “if you’re on a search for the truth, you’re seeking something that is not reductive, a prime number divisible only by itself.”
“Or something like God.”
“So you’re saying one must keep asking questions to get closer to a knowledge of God?”
“I don’t know,” she said.
“Or are you saying that God is just the answer you get if you don’t ask enough questions?”
“Or the right questions.”
“Lacan said that we are always in pursuit because we are in pursuit of something that isn’t there.”
“God?” she asked.
He sighed. “I am exhausted, Daphne.”
She, too, was exhausted—exhausted from all of their quoting. Every Monday afternoon—quote, quote, quote. If living that long meant quoting what you’d read over a lifetime, she wanted no part of it.
“Please don’t think I’m kicking you out,” he said.
She smiled. “I’d never think that. I’ll slip away so quietly it’ll be like I wasn’t even here.”
“I’ll buy that. But let me say one thing before you erase yourself from my consciousness.”
She looked at him.
“You need to remember to also press control-V, Daphne—yes, I know you’re impressed—control-V for victory, so that you can retrieve what you cut out of your story.”