It wasn’t long after Daphne left the Ludenberrys’ that she was on Massachusetts Avenue heading toward Porter Square, where We the People were armed with phones. “Every era’s a rude era!” and “Do you need a religion to envision human happiness?” She recognized the Quartet’s words, though they didn’t work so well coming from the mouths of strangers.
It seemed likely she was going crazy, but it nonetheless saddened her to think that Elijah could be considered nothing more than a social pawn by the social-climbing Ellen Ludenberry—a pawn in relation to Messrs. Steinbrenner and Frost.
In his time and place, Elijah was much more than a critic. He was interrogated by HUAC in 1956, the same time as his friend Arthur Miller. Like Miller, he didn’t name names. He hung onto his job at Columbia but was a broke academic for many years, unable to get work published. He stood by old friends through the jailings and firings, the wrecked careers and ruined families. This was concurrent with Linus’s staking the parameters of the cold war, establishing the CIA’s covert operations—America’s “unblinking eye on Asia.” That Linus and Elijah had established an innocuous rapport was in some sense absurd.
To Daphne, Elijah Tweeten would always be a figure to cause excitement by proximity—poor boy from Schenectady, son of an alcoholic switchman and a mother lost young to the influenza epidemic. Erstwhile sentimental Marxist with a profound love of Manhattan, complicated relationship with Lionel Trilling—the irony of his esteemed presence at Columbia as the man of American letters when his two books that really matter are on English writers. His being a “Larkin scholar” before any existed, before the old sod was canonized by the academy. His difficult marriage to the brilliant, tragic Marjorie Swain.
And most recently his exuberant discussion of the cyclical nature of time in Hardy’s Return of the Native. All those things he said about the ancient heath—the rites of fertility and sacrifice one imagined going back to its pre-Christian runic-minded inhabitants—made Daphne want to read the novel again. He could almost persuade you that the void of Hardy in your life was precisely the problem with your life. He could make you feel excited to be thinking about prose: “Our lives don’t belong to us; we merely play the role of enactors in a circle of primitive animal force.”
No one should be a social pawn, least of all a man possessing that kind of conjuring power with language. But how relevant, really, were the ideas and opinions of Elijah and even Linus and Simon in the world of 2003? And Jan, she thought—he wouldn’t even make it onto a roster of Who Was let alone Who’s Who. It was probably no accident these men were winding down their lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Anywhere else in the country they’d be suspect. The ability to quote lucidly from memory—and not the inability to name the current president—could very well be what classified you as senile in Wyoming.
“Tell that to the jackals in this administration!” in one direction and “Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs—nothing to do with human happiness” in another. If all the Quartet did was quote to Daphne, the world was now quoting the quoters. As paranormal occurrences go, this one was especially strange given that no one had to memorize anything anymore. The brilliant people of today—with their big-picture outside-the-box thinking—disparaged the acquisition of any skill that could be handled by technology, whereas the classical intellect of the Quartet was based on memorization. They had the necessary mental pathways from decades of use, so that even very old men could recite the words of others with a certainty no teleprompter junkie could fathom. Their abilities would die with them.
What quotes did Daphne know by heart? The rhyming poems of high school, the gemstones of Frost, adages from Wallace Stevens, Emily Dickinson’s phrases between dashes, the excruciating parts of Yeats and Keats, a smattering of Shakespeare soliloquies, Lincoln nuggets here and there. Stray lines come unloosed from the hairpins—that was the gist of her Ph.D. She now remembered Joyce’s “Snow was general all over Ireland” only because it had begun to snow.
It did seem likely she was going crazy, but given the way she lived, what did it matter? Why not be crazy if you were already an emotional hermit? Here she was trying to protect the reputations and incarnations of the Fab Four, but her own mental deterioration was occurring beyond the range of any tender ear. Who’d care to hear that she was losing her mind—Andy? Paul? Should she call her brother?
“Does your brother know how much you’ve made of you two being separated?” The nonbeliever wanted to know this. It was dark that time, under the recent tenting of leaves—spring, probably mid-May. She remembered umbrellas of dogwoods in bloom, their domes popping out startlingly under the orange-hued streetlights.
“Oh, sure. But he’s always told me I think too much. What he means is I’m wasting thought-time on something that’s fixed in time.”
They were walking down a red-brick sidewalk on a dark street because he couldn’t believe she’d never seen the two bronze rhinos outside the Harvard Bio Labs, so he was taking her there.
“Nothing’s fixed in time,” he replied.
She was by then used to his abstractions. “Paul and I are very close.”
“You said you don’t confide much in him.”
“We’re still close.”
“I always wondered how close my sister and I would’ve been.”
So much of what he said seemed like a gold key to a lock-clasp diary—you insert to hear a tiny ping, to release all the other conversations that never got finished.
“You really believe in ghosts?” she asked.
“You can do certain things without belief coming into it. I like to think about ghosts and spirits—whether I believe they are empirical entities is irrelevant.”
“Men of science—uppercase Men of Science—aren’t supposed to talk like that.”
He held out his hand as he walked, feeling for the concise, waxy leaves of a hedge. He was too shy to hold her hand even after they’d been sleeping together for months. He was savoring the dark—she could feel it in his restraint, from the words he wasn’t jumping in with. “I think there’s a force always working on us, to keep us going back to relive something. You can’t really call it ‘unhealthy’ when it’s inevitable. Something happens, and of all the ways you can respond, some are way better than the others. There may even be a best way. But we can only react one way, and some luck out by hitting it. The rest of us keep going back.”
She wanted the past to go away, to be unremembered. “Why can’t I be the one who lucks out?”
He stopped in front of a house on Francis Avenue—a dark-colored one with an overhang, flaunting more cottage charm than any of the street’s other proud houses would dare. His eyes were drawn to the lighted second-floor windows, three small ones with lace curtains. “Someday we’ll have a house with curtains like that. So that people stop on the street in the dark and say, ‘I wonder who lives there.’ ”
Despite his dizzying ideas about time, there was a place for “someday.” He thought that something important was lost with the obsolescence of vinyl records—how without this visualization people would not think of music as something that goes round and round, with old parts and new. They would not be able to see an album as swirling into the center, but rather as a static thing, a song—this one and that one. And by swirling into the center he didn’t mean recycled—because that would imply stopping and restarting—but continuous motion. He knew music; he played guitar in a band for five years of doing nothing. There was a well-known association between math and guitar chords and Chicago. “What did Chicago give the world? Music, comedy, and Jewish economists with destructive ideas.”
She remembered a time not long after they met. They were driving to Gloucester for clams. All the windows were down, and he thought it might be fun to listen to olden times via WFNX. Before pressing scan he said, “I’ll give you five bucks if it’s Michael Stipe singing.” And it was Billy Corgan—even better!—and the song “Thirty-three,” which he said could be epic if you stripped away the inane lyrics except for you can make it last forever.
“You’re not supposed to know any songs by the Smashing Pumpkins,” she told him.
She shook her head, “It wouldn’t be epic. It would just be a sad thought. No one can make anything last forever.”
“Epic and sad then.”
“The definition of tragic.”
“You can tell that even though old Billy wants to believe what he’s professing—that you can make it last forever—he can’t, and that’s why it’s tragic. It’s not about a person; it’s about all the things we try to substitute for a nonexistent afterlife.”
She laughed. “You mean you don’t believe love will make you immortal?”
“My father always said, ‘All a scientist can hope is that love will make him human.’ ”
At Porter Station, Daphne stood on the concourse outside the entrance. She had thought she was going to walk past—up and over—as she always did. But something gave her pause. She made the snap decision to get on the subway headed for Boston, with the intention of dropping by the apartment of some old friends, a couple she was close to before things changed. They’d just had a baby and didn’t have enough room. Perhaps she would tell them and their crowded baby about the “voices,” about the four famous members of the Quartet and their blue phones, about Mistress Eugenie possibly being behind everything. They might not relish the surprise attack, but they could just tell her to go away. This was a good spontaneous move, wasn’t it?—a move most unlike the bad spontaneous moves to which troubled minds are prone. This was the stuff of mental health, of seeing possibilities everywhere.
She sat across from a young couple in partial embrace—the girl repeatedly kissing her boyfriend all over his face as he looked down matter-of-factly at his open phone, scrolling through calls as if searching for clues. The girl didn’t seem bothered that her lover’s attention was elsewhere. She also didn’t seem to be kissing him over and over because there wasn’t enough time; it looked to be because there was nothing better to do.
Daphne looked away. What did she want more than anything? Answers. She just wanted to know why. Why, for instance, should so many tragedies strike all members of a single family in the way the one mosquito zipped inside your tent kept biting and biting the same ankle? She didn’t buy the consolation of “faith”—the line that human grieving was all part of some mysterious, intricate plan of a benevolent deity—nor could she stomach the cold and hard explanation of random chance, of bad luck being mere coincidence. She hated coincidence.
She looked again at the bored kisser and wondered how much, really, anyone needed to legitimately feel to sign over the calendar of his or her life to another. It seemed that the commitment could be made on the most insubstantial grounds. As a student she read a haiku by Issa—
Children imitating cormorants—
—and simultaneous translated as
Strangers imitating lovers—
When the train emerged from underground, right before the Longfellow Bridge, the phones came out—one, two, three, a hesitant four. Daphne braced herself as the train slowed to a creep over the bridge and halted, the conductor promising only a momentary delay because of a train directly ahead. It was snowing on the Charles, a fact that one of the callers—a man with an enormous rigid briefcase balanced like a coffee table on his lap—felt obliged to report: “I’m on the Red Line. We’re stuck over the river. It’s snowing. There too?” The man being kissed all over his face sprang to life with his ring-tone: “Yeah?” Was there something better going on at the other end?
These five people were talking their own talk, not the dialogue from Daphne’s life, so wasn’t that a good thing? She made herself keenly aware of this situation: They were all talking their own talk into their phones.
But then, with the train still idle, every voice coming from the mouths of these strangers on their phones turned into the same woman’s voice instantaneously, as if someone somewhere flipped a master switch. She felt like the deer that lifts its head from the brook and momentarily turns into a lawn ornament. The pause before flight was not a question of whether but where—which way should she run for safety from the same woman’s voice coming from five different bodies?
She didn’t know where to look. Was she shocked and afraid enough to stand and scream? She stood abruptly, getting halfway there. But what good would screaming do? They stared at her—the five on their phones and the others who were not. If she was afraid, it was a special way of being afraid. One of Dr. Glazer’s many suggestions was that she might be trying to make her depression into art. Was she “subtle, ready to fight, and creative”? Did she possess a “diversification of moods,” “variety in sadness,” and “refinement in sorrow”? She told him her soul-sickness felt ridiculous and small, yet she woke and there it was, filling her like a beer bottle in a paper bag.
How strange, she thought in a reasonable tone as she sat back down. How strange that these people were speaking in the same voice. And how strange that it was a woman’s voice—strikingly intelligent and yet feminine, with the elegant meter of a past generation, the sound you might hear through headphones at an interactive exhibition at the Smithsonian. How strange and yet how expected that her delusions be kicked up a notch, taken to another tier.
She got off the inbound train at Charles Street and walked down the stairs and up the stairs to wait for an outbound back to Cambridge. On a subway car trundling across the salt-and-pepper bridge, she turned to look at the black river beyond the glass. There in reflection was her familiar expression—no, the voice hadn’t messed with that—but beyond that all she could see was a territory of the mind, like the Seamus Heaney poem where we learn that all life sprang
from salt in tears which the sky-god wept
after he dreamt his solitude was endless.
Even if this was all just a dream of endless solitude, she didn’t have the energy to will herself “Wake up!” This was not the night to “Wake up!” let alone “Only connect!” No, this wasn’t the night for that. This was the night to turn around and go back home—doing exactly what she was doing—endowed with a mission! a search for a path! an arc of life! a completion!