Daphne was unbuttoning her coat when the Live Every Day events coordinator popped her face into the space Daphne shared with Andy and a cubicle partition. “I come bearing gifts from the Helix.”
She handed Daphne what appeared to be a transparent ID card and moved on to Andy’s half. “These will make your day.”
“OK,” said Andy, emerging into the open, “my day is made. What the heck is this?”
“They’re laminated four-leaf clovers,” said Angela.
“You can buy these now?” he asked.
“They’re a special clover that they grow in their estate greenhouse—for Lady Helix to give as good luck tokens to brides-to-be. They wanted to share them with us.”
“So if I carry this around,” he asked, “does that mean I myself will have an estate greenhouse before the next High Holiday?”
“You mean they pay someone to grow mutants?” asked Daphne.
“I guess so,” Angela conceded.
After eight days of hearing the “beautiful voice of our lady,” Daphne had no patience with concealed identity.
“Just who are these people,” she asked, “and why are we working for people we don’t know who they are?”
“Syntactically,” said Andy, “you sound like W.”
“You actually sound like my husband,” said Angela. “He says that some nights he can’t sleep worrying about who they are.”
“One time I dreamt they were really David Duke,” said Andy, “and lived on a plantation covered with so much hanging moss I had to use my father’s Deere hedge trimmer to collect my paycheck.”
“All right, Andy,” Angela said before walking away, “now you’ve made my day.”
“How you gonna use yours?” Andy asked Daphne.
“To help me find my recorder,” said Daphne, throwing her coat on the chair near her desk.
“Why did you just say that?” she snapped.
He shrugged. “I’m trying to be pretentious?”
She turned her back on him and dialed to listen to her voicemail: Daphne, I just wish you’d call me to talk about setting up this meeting. It’s not just for him, but it’s for your ben— She erased it. In her email queue was another message from Paul that she read and deleted.
“What’s wrong, Daph?” Andy’s voice came gently over the cubicle wall. “Something’s been up for a while—for a few months. Since that day you ran away from the Manic Birdman.”
“He’s not the Manic Birdman anymore. With his new heart he’s turned into the Calm Birdman.”
“I was just reading how they’ve seen transplant patients take on ‘propensities’ of their organ donors—like cravings for chocolate. That must mean a calm guy gave the Manic Birdman his heart.”
“The guy didn’t give anyone his heart, Andy. He was driving to work one day and now he’s dead.”
She studied the four-leaf clover embalmed within plastic. Though she herself never found one, someone else did—found one when they were both looking and gave it to her. He said the odds of finding a four-leaf clover on the first try were one in ten thousand. She told him she had probably made ten thousand attempts. He was the one with the bad luck, however. When they met, his dog had just been killed by a car near Fresh Pond. “I’m through with dogs,” he told her. “You can’t ever be through with dogs,” she replied. He assured her he had learned his lesson, but one day he came home with two kittens in each pocket of his jacket. “There was a guy in Harvard Square, real crazy, holding them up in one hand, saying he was going to squeeze tight if he didn’t get fifty bucks. I gave him all I had—a twenty—to make him stop.”
Shortly before noon she picked up her ringing phone to hear Linus Steinbrenner asking her to please come by his apartment that day if at all possible. “I’m on my way,” she told him.
As she gathered her coat and bag, a Fedex man appeared to make a query of her name. As she prepared to sign the carbon, she saw in the sender field “MSS EUGENIE,” like on those three mailboxes in Medford. She briefly considered refusing to accept the package, and then once she had it, she considered throwing it away.
“What’s in the box?” Andy shouted. “C’mon, open it, open it!”
“It’s something evil from an evil person.”
“Consistency,” he replied, “that counts for something. Go on—open the evil box.”
She pulled the embedded strip to slit the cardboard, folded back the flap, and allowed the contents to slide free. Nestled within thickly wadded balls of comics from the Sunday Globe was something hard, swaddled in white cloth.
“What the hell’s that?” he asked when she removed the device. “A Lady Remington shaver?”
“It’s a phone.”
“That,” he asked with astonishment, “is a phone? From what century would it be a phone?”
“Only old people use these.”
“Why’s it already glowing?”
“Maybe you should send it back.”
“You want it?”
“At this stage in my life I think I’d prefer a Lady Remington.”
She unfolded the white wrapping to reveal a T-shirt, now dingy from the newsprint. Its black lettering read: OF ALL THE THINGS I’VE LOST, I MISS MY MIND THE MOST.
“Is this some kind of wireless promotion?” he asked, dumbfounded. “Their marketing tactics are kind of terrifying—hunting down the few people in the country without phones.”
She looked at him sadly as she wadded and tossed the T-shirt into a wastebasket. “You’re right about being hunted down.”
“Look,” he said, shaking his head, “the writing’s on the wall and there’s nothing we can do. The Helix are getting ready to shut us down and move on to something else. I suppose it was good while it lasted even though nobody made any money.”
“I don’t care about this job.”
“Then what’s wrong? What is it?”
“I lost my recorder.”
“Something’s been going on for a while. It’s the old guys, isn’t it?”
Her eyes remained fixed on the ridiculous thing in her hand. “They’re going to die soon,” she told him before again looking up. “Knock-knock-knocking on heaven’s door.”
“Maybe you should think about seeing Dr. Glazer again.”
“Maybe you should think about finding a new job.”
“Where are you going?”
“To see Linus.”
“You just saw them yesterday.”
What could she say? She was their fixer—with Mary Poppins’s bag of tricks.
Outside in the Square, she worried about Linus but also the other three. As she walked briskly in the direction of Brattle Street, it didn’t matter in what vocal key the passersby were speaking into their phones. Girl, boy, girl, boy . . . was anyone really herself anymore? What could Dr. Glazer do for her? She had signed consent forms so he could use an anonymous version of her in his next book. He’d probably already written a happy ending and was annoyed that her life wasn’t conforming to his script. And what good would it do to reconnect with her mother, as Paul kept nagging her to? It was almost four years since they’d spoken. No, it seemed that the ball was already in motion; there was nothing she could do about anything but follow closely with her eyes to see where it landed. Being in this condition precluded having an attentive ear. She hadn’t noticed, for instance, that her bag started ringing.
Somehow the Lady Remington had found its way in with her wallet, her keys, the plastic case containing lipstick and a hairbrush, a 1932 edition of The Death of Ivan Ilyich. Had Andy done this as a joke? Should she take the thing out and hurl it into traffic?
Girl, boy, girl, boy passing on the street—why did everyone on God’s green earth have a fucking phone held to his head? This same breathy Greer Garson voice coming from girl-boy-girl-boy made her feel feverish, queasy.
And here matters came to a head, no longer loitering on the margins of the action, no longer playing coy.
“Connecting,” said the busy construction worker who looked at Daphne—looked at her directly with his thick midwinter tan and the same Death Valley wrinkles as Robert Redford.
She walked faster.
“I said connecting!” said the woman holding a Yorkie wearing a tiny Burberry raincoat. She, too, looked Daphne in the eye. Her dog looked away; its coat was a few sizes too big.
“It’s the necessary angel of Bell Telephone calling you!” Boy on red and black skateboard.
“Pick up if you’re there, Daphne!” Girl with eyebrows plucked down to nothing.
“It’s the necessary angel of Bell Telephone!” Woman dressed like circa-1966 Julia Child.
“The necessary angel trying to patch in Lady Remington!” Tall man with blond mustache for which he must’ve had a special comb.
Daphne realized she was crying the kind of tears that just happened.
“For crying out loud, Daphne”—unexcitable-looking man with eyes like a blood hound’s—“this place is too small for me!”
Finally she stopped and pulled the ringing phone out of her bag. She looked around as if it were apparent that she was in mortal danger, looked around as if a heroic stranger with a mustache comb might intervene to save her life. She placed the phone to her ear.
“For crying out loud, Daphne! Let me say this by way of introduction: Be careful where you die, what you’re wearing. It will come back to haunt you.
Death is the mother of beauty; hence from her,
Alone, shall come fulfillment to our dreams.”
“You’re not real!” Daphne shouted into the phone.
“Oh, dear. How I do wish I could say you are so right about not being real. But instead I shall quote Morandi. You know him? The painter. There is nothing more surreal, nothing more abstract than reality.”
Daphne snapped the thing shut. How could this be another of Eugenie’s hoaxes? How could it be a hoax when this was the same voice she’d been hearing these past eight days? She rubbed the tears from her cheeks with her palm and continued pressing on regardless—what the British did during wars—the phone in her bag ringing incessantly.
Death is the mother of beauty she heard inside her head again and again. Who knew? Who knew that death was the mother of beauty beyond Wallace Stevens? Mistress Eugenie—what did she know but Buffy the Vampire Slayer? Daphne felt like a dog with soapsuds on its tail, futilely running to get away from them.
I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;
I fled Him, down the arches of the years.
Something told her to leave the ringing phone on the marble floor of Linus’s lobby. She took the marble stairs two at a time.
“You didn’t hear me that last time,” said Gwen at the door. “I told you to stop smoking, get more sleep, meditate some, eat more grapefruit, and get yourself some lavender hand cream.”
“You didn’t say anything about grapefruit,” Daphne replied, following again like a penitent schoolgirl.
Linus in his armchair throne appeared as distressed as he’d sounded on the phone. He seemed to have aged ten or twenty years since she last saw him, if that were possible when you were already ninety-three. An oxygen tank was nearby; she could tell he’d just been using the mask. He sat as if something in the atmosphere was bearing down on his already collapsed shoulders.
“Linus, what happened?” she asked, rushing to his side.
“You know I have congestive heart failure.”
“You called me for a reason.”
“You yourself don’t look well.”
“Things are not going right,” she said, dropping onto his sofa.
“I know that, my dear.”
“I’m afraid, Linus. Before I wasn’t, but now—today—I am.”
“Gwen,” he shouted to the extent of his ability. “Please, in here. Daphne needs a glass of brandy.”
“Brandy?” Gwen shouted back. “Who in this day drinks brandy?”
“Bourbon,” Daphne hollered into the distance, “if you’ve got it.”
“Bourbon then,” said Linus. “Straight—no Tylenol chasers.”
“What you need,” Gwen advised upon entering the room, “for your health I mean, is a nice organic fruit wine with no nitrates.”
“Bourbon with some club soda,” Daphne said, “if you’ve got it.”
“Nice organic fruit wine,” Gwen continued, “but I’ll get you the booze this once.”
“You need to talk to Eugenie again,” said Linus when Gwen had gone.
She couldn’t look him in the face. “Something’s changed,” she pressed, staring at her hands.
“As I said, the things that are wrong do not suddenly crop up at my age. They have always been there, massive and looming like a Macy’s balloon between the skyscrapers.”
“It was yesterday—last night at Eugenie’s.”
“My dear arbiter elegantiae.”
“Anna died in 1938. Everything about last night was 1938.”
He tried to smile. “The year the White House got its Steinway.”
They sat in silence to the clicking of two out-of-synch wall clocks. His pale blue eyes were more distant than ever. He seemed to be gazing at the world from a perch. Someone she once interviewed told her that dying begins with a falling away, on the inside, which allows you to step far outside yourself to perceive that you have become very small.
“Jan with his ‘unearthed recordings,’ ” he continued, staring into the distance. “Of course it called to mind the exhuming of a body, or the opening of a time capsule. It struck me that the day, the hour that Jan was playing that piece was one of the days and hours Anna lie in bed, myself in all likelihood lying at her side, fully clothed. I would come upon the room in jacket and necktie, a case of papers in my hand, and would silently lie down beside her just like that, in full pedestrian regalia.”
He paused to shake his head, as if objecting to what his mind was seeing. “When Jan played those pieces, there was such misery for us, and yet it was still at least real. It was going on now. Even in the grip of pain and chaotic thinking, you cannot at all realize that this intensity of feeling here and now is so much better than the calm aftermath, the removal.”
“You’ve had so much else in your life,” she consoled. “Your life has been colossal.”
“I’m leaving this earth a defeated man.”
Gwen arrived with the drink that Daphne was glad to take from her hand.
“I’ve been having a recurring dream,” he continued, once Gwen had gone, “where I wake to see a vesper sparrow sitting on my blanket, cocking its head and staring me in the eye. Do you know the bird?”
She shook her head.
“Native mostly to the Columbia Plateau. The Cascades and the Pacific Northwest. Habitat loss in the bird’s eastern range is decreasing its numbers. The field sparrow—forty years ago there were eighteen million and today only six million. The Northern bobwhite, too, and the eastern meadowlark. Forty years ago there were thirty-one million bobwhites; now there are less than six million. The existence of other species is something that good humans are supposed to consider in our maniacal pursuit of commerce. That is what sustainability is about.” He paused to look at her directly. “But we are not good humans. We expect this earth’s species to adapt to our lascivious theft of their habitat. We expect other species to pull their weight by managing to survive our daily sallies of sloth and gluttony.”
“My uncle,” she began, looking down at the glass in her hand, “one of my uncles, he loved birds with your passion. He was a geologist.”
“Your brother Paul’s a geologist.”
“Your brother sounds like a good man, Daphne.”
“He wants to fix things that matter—like global warming. He’s trying to find a way to suck all the CO2 out of the atmosphere and store it underground.”
In the ensuing silence she thought to reach into her bag to show him the laminated four-leaf clover.
“So you have your four-leaf clover, finally.”
“This is a cheat clover,” she said, “because it was cultivated in a greenhouse. Next time I’ll bring you my real one.”
“I thought you never found one.”
“I didn’t,” she said, “but someone else did. I’ll come with it tomorrow.”
He closed his eyes. “The son of a former student of mine is an editor at the Post.” He paused. “Somehow he got hold of a manuscript by Richard Perle, wherein he rationalizes an invasion of Iraq by saying something to the effect that ‘there is no middle way for Americans; it’s either victory or holocaust.’ ”
“Yesterday you said reason and fairness would win out.”
She knew this wasn’t true. “You said it did before.”
“These past few months I have come to see how much successful foreign policy is simply the result of luck. I was a realist, Daphne, not a progressive. And I had a very intimate relationship with Churchill’s black dog. For a while I also had a terrible drinking problem—the elephant in the room that Katherine would Hoover away. They’d let me drive, they’d let me into Bretton Woods dead drunk. ‘Enablers’ is what they’re now called.”
“But you made it through all that.”
“And I was desperately afraid of airplanes,” he continued. “Why that was, I can’t say. Perhaps as a countervailing force to my love of birds. Birds and planes—they fly directly into the wind as they leave the ground, fixing their gaze at a distant point, high above.”
“So you know what you fear.”
“Age does not bring simplification. That is a truth I will not spare you.”
“Your achievement was great, Linus.”
“If I only had more time for contemplation—no, brutal self-reflection—when I was younger and still an agent in public life I could have avoided mistakes.”
“We make wrong decisions because conditions force us to act. We don’t have the luxury of time.”
“For years Mac Bundy was working on a book about Vietnam with a message that the war was a terrible mistake. He, like the lot of us, realized his misdirection, but he didn’t let it gnaw at him or cause him to lose sleep. ‘I’m not going to spend the rest of my life feeling guilty about it,’ he said. The same for Paul Nitze, who was always so full-steam-ahead that he tried to take arms escalation with the Russians into his own hands. His attempt backfired. So the great Paul Nitze went off to the Paul Nitze School of International Studies. I do not begrudge the man.”
He looked exhausted. He had around him several glasses of water, a mug of black tea, tissues and a small faded floral towel rolled up to support his back.
“Darwin’s final book was”—he paused—“The Formation of Vegetable Mould through the Action of Worms, with Observations on Their Habits.” He reached for a book from his stack and seemed to injure himself. She hurried to find among the spines the one he wanted. When she handed it to him, he opened it to one of the many pages bearing markers of torn newspaper.
“Darwin started writing about earthworms as death closed in,” he said as he opened the book. “‘It may be doubted whether there are many other animals which have played so important a part in the history of the world, as have these lowly organized creatures.’ ”
He paused and looked toward the ceiling. “It is not ‘God’s will’ that worms are as they are and do what they do to make this earth copious for the benefit of humans. It’s simply our good fortune to have it this way. So much of what has been attributed to God’s love for His creations is merely the fortuitous contingencies of evolution.”
“You mean you agree with Darwin about God?”
“At the end Anna looked like an old woman. Her lips were at times white, at times blue. I was weak, not strong. I wept like a schoolboy, my face wet and red for days. ‘I need you to tell me,’ she said, ‘I don’t know how it feels like to die.’ ”
She drank the rest of the bourbon.
“The treatment for cancer in those days was the doctor withholding the news from you and your family. Go home, Mrs. Jones. Enjoy life! Katherine on her deathbed told me, ‘I’m thinking a lot about my parents, whether I’ll see them as I remember them.’ I don’t grieve for that moment for even a fraction of what I felt and feel for Anna’s moment. That’s horrible, Daphne. I’m a horrid man.”
“That’s not true.”
“When Darwin’s daughter died of tuberculosis,” he continued, pausing to take several deep gulps of air, “he composed many pages in memorial. And then he locked the manuscript in his desk.” He stopped to stabilize his breathing. “I think he was signaling the abandonment of all scant traces of his Christian faith.” He paused again. “Annie’s dying brutally as a girl of ten had no meaning. Blind chance was the main determiner in the struggle for survival. Comfort could only be had through contemplation of infinity. For Darwin, the most wondrous aspect of the universe was its vast and perfect indifference.”
“But what about Paine,” she argued, “and his believing in one God, no more, and happiness beyond this life? What about all the things Paul said about love? What about Augustine?”
He tried to smile. “Do you know the most beautiful line from his Confessions?”
She shook her head.
“Nondum amabam et amare amabam. Daphne, I loved not yet, yet I loved to love.”
“I loved not yet,” she repeated, “yet I loved to love.”
He tried to smile but again made with that awful grimace. “I need to rest.”
Her body ached with sadness, the cause of which she imagined to be an army of earthworms slithering through her marrow. Her eyes were bleary. Because of the bourbon she kissed his forehead after he’d closed his eyes. When she found Gwen to tell her she was leaving, Gwen flashed a harsh look. “You be ready.”
Daphne left Linus’s apartment just as the doors of the narrow elevator snapped open to reveal his neighbor. Daphne could not bring herself to smile at anyone at that moment, so she just stared at Mathilde, who stared back before holding out her hand.
“This is yours, right?” she said in her impersonator voice. It was Eugenie’s blue phone.
“Why do you think that?”
“It was a guess.”
“Did you answer it when it rang?”
“Why would I do that?”
“Linus is resting,” Daphne told her. “You might want to come back later.”
“I’ll have to check on him,” she said. She shoved the phone into Daphne’s hand.
Daphne waited for her to be greeted by Gwen and allowed inside before taking the stairs, the phone resuming its ringing before she reached bottom. In the lobby, the elevator chimed its return and opened its narrow doors. She walked over and placed the ringing phone inside the car by itself. She pushed the button for the sixth floor and left the building.