The day began with a creeping stillness, Daphne waking to find it a minute past six by the silent watch on her wrist. Lifting her head proved a task; someone had left an anvil at the base of her skull.
She’d had the one bracer at Linus’s, but the 73 bus let her off near the Charles Hotel, so she went to a bar there and had two more bourbons as she read Ivan Ilyich’s lamentations—he did not deserve such suffering what for having lived so rightly. Then she went to a movie at the Brattle—Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Wages of Fear—to avoid thinking about her life. She couldn’t remember much about returning to her apartment, though she must have accomplished that. The movie was about four men hired to drive two trucks carrying nitroglycerine over mountainous roads in South America. An oil well had caught fire; they needed the nitroglycerine to blow it up.
She showered and dressed and realized she was actually early, arriving to work before the others. Lying at the center of her desk was a piece of mail, the kind most people didn’t receive anymore. It was hand-addressed to her at Live Every Day and appeared to carry within it an actual letter, probably also composed in someone’s hand. The postmark said Sewickley, Pennsylvania; the sender in the return address said Dowling.
What did the woman want? Daphne thought as she dropped into her chair. She stared at the letter, not even wanting to touch it for the assumption it was counterfeit, another hoax, like it might contain anthrax powder. She listened to her messages—from Lena Vargo, the blind hang-glider she’d been trying to interview, and another from Paul.
So many unanswered questions hovered in the air about her and the hand-addressed envelope. They reminded her of her uncle’s theory about lightning: “The only thing you can do is try to understand how and not why.” He meant the randomness of where it strikes. He had much advice for when you were out on a ramble and sensed an electrical storm approaching. He told her how you could time the interval between seeing the flash of lightning and hearing the bang of thunder to know how many miles off was the storm, how much time you had. And if there was no time he told her how to withstand its path: off the water, down from the ridge, stay clear of the bare ground. Find some trees that were all the same height but stay away from the roots. Go for ground covered in vegetation, crouching on the balls of your feet, covering your head with your arms, waiting it out.
Andy had come upon Daphne and the envelope.
“Afraid of dying.”
“I took a message for you yesterday.”
“What do you mean took a message?”
“I picked up your phone when it rang. It was Dr. Glazer.”
She closed her eyes and shook her head.
“Daphne, he told me about the guy. I think you should meet him.”
“That’s not taking a message. That’s violating my privacy. He could lose his license.”
“You’re not going to change what happened.”
All she could see was a lightning rod for everything that had gone awry and remained awry—the Sears tower poised to take another hit. “Did I ever say I wanted to change what happened?”
“You put up these walls.”
She stared at the partition separating her desk from his. “Does anyone see me bitching about how you can kill someone and go free? Do you see me giving anyone a hard time about that?”
“Maybe Glazer thinks this will help you go free.”
She shook her head again. “You’re only allowed to save my life once.”
When he retreated behind the partition, she called Linus’s apartment only to hear Gwen’s assessment of “same as yesterday.” She didn’t want to sit in a cubicle feeling worried and afraid. She needed to talk about this thing happening now, this thing she had allowed herself to be swept up within. She decided to slip away from the office, like used to happen with people having affairs.
Surprisingly, the voice wasn’t on the street, colonizing the voices people sent into their phones. From what she could remember, it was like that last night as well, after the movie let out. It was possible that the voice had remained inside the phone she left in Linus’s building, the genie stoppered into its bottle.
She wound up at the Ludenberrys’ house on Avon Hill. The door was answered by Celestia, who led Daphne to the dark-paneled study where Elijah sat in his green velour chair. Without the beret and glasses, his pink head was bald and seemingly misshapen to a degree that made his entire form indecipherable from a crude drawing of an embryo or the consensual appearance of an alien. As he blinked with dopey eyes, she realized he had absolutely no visible brows or lashes—no body hair whatsoever. When he put on his glasses he was at last familiar.
“You’ve caught me off guard,” he told her.
“I’m sorry about the surprise.”
“But it’s a happy surprise, my dear.”
“Thank you for saying that.”
“My inclination just this moment was to ask about ‘the voice,’ but doing so would seem like I was speaking about Sinatra.”
“I wish it was Sinatra,” she said sitting on a chintz sofa.
“It’s witchcraft,” he sang, “wicked witchcraft.”
She looked at him with affection. “I wish I could’ve lived in Frank’s New York. Your New York. What was it like after the war and before irony, when everyone was a poet?”
“Oh, I had Muses scattered all over that city,” he said, “in nooks and crannies. And the best part is, they never knew they were Muses let alone ones belonging to me.”
“Was it these Muses who compelled you to write?”
“They compelled me to drool.”
“It must have been love of literature,” she ventured. “Love had to have been at the core.”
“I say contempt. As in the perpetual contempt generated by marriage to Mags Swain.”
“Marjorie Swain is a beautiful name.”
He shook his head. “Nothing beautiful about it. Moniker most foul!”
“That dissertation I was talked out of was going to be on Frothingham in relation to three other writers, one of them Hawthorne.”
“You came here to tell me that?”
“I was reading Frothingham—or rereading it—when I met Linus. I don’t know how many times I’ve read that book.”
He sighed. “People tend to do that with her.”
“She was a beautiful writer. I was in college when her work had its renaissance. You have to know that people are now comparing Frothingham to Hardy, Dreiser, and Fitzgerald.”
“It wasn’t like that then. I calculated that for every two times she checked herself into Payne Whitney, one of her books went out of print.”
“Was it so bad that you have no forgiveness,” she asked, “even after all these years?”
He took a moment to speak. “I loved her that summer everyone was running off to Damarsicotta Mills. That was the window of opportunity—the sixty seconds during which to impregnate the panda—but she wanted no part of me then.”
Marjorie Swain was no beauty but somehow managed to come across as a great one. In the sexist world of both then and now, her looks, just as much as her writing talent, constituted the gist of her fame. Daphne remembered later reading something Elizabeth Hardwick had written—that Margie “had a skill of always making you believe she was arriving. And because she was arriving, now it could all begin.”
“Was that when you were Communists together?” Daphne asked with a teasing smile.
His smile was reluctant. “She was born and raised in Colorado Springs. She wanted to go to college, and her mother said no. But then upon seeing how not pretty the girl was turning out, her mother consented to college so as to ship her out of town. The woman was a bona fide Southern belle, right out of an Inge play. An uncle lived in Chicago, and that’s why Margie went to the U of C. And then like all those Midwestern dreamers, she blew into New York. She said she wanted to meet more brilliant Jews than the ones she met in Chicago—what her parents called ‘Hebrews.’ She became a Communist briefly; that’s how I met her.”
“How long were you together?”
“We didn’t marry till ’65, but we were together since the end of the fifties. She’d been married twice. You probably know the story better than I do.”
“The story perhaps, but not the truth.”
“If you want the truth,” he told her, “you’re barking up the wrong tree.”
“How loud do I need to bark to find out about Pandora?”
“She had a horror of the confessional poets’ exhibitionism, Margie. She didn’t write about her personal life. In fact, the anguish of her existence was the tricky relationship between life and art. She lived by some scrap of Ford Madox Ford wisdom—that portraiture drawn from life was ‘impolite.’ But when she was drunk she was like a cyclone; her wit and formidable power with words tore up everything in her wake. And of course she’d never remember a thing, the innocent pussycat nosing out amid the carnage.”
“Do you think she was bipolar?”
“The word then was manic-depressive, and because Lowell had claimed that part of the grandstand, no one else could have it. But you’re right about the time. They all needed drugs—to be medicated and sent home. It’s a miracle they managed to find each other, stumbling about in the dark. Blind mice wearing their severed tails like a Croix de Guerre.”
“I remember reading her story ‘The Jewels I Kept’ in high school. It scared me because I understood what she meant by the blue box—what made solitude a passion greater than anything else. It scared me because I thought that only crazy people understood such things. I guess it’s like what I told you about my skittishness regarding Larkin’s life.”
“Her ‘blue box’ was a metaphorical place of sanctuary—it was booze obviously, but it was also the world on the page. When she was engrossed in writing she was a divine creature, that thing of beauty that is a joy forever. Her blue box was also the hospital clinic on the morning after she’d check in smelling of vomit and other parts of the gutter. She said she loved the feeling waking up cleaned and pressed out like a taught bed sheet reeking of Clorox. Even if she was in physical agony, somehow she took in optimism with the IV. I hadn’t even got to filing for divorce by the time she died. The marriage had turned me into a sniveling procrastinator. Before that I’d been a sniveling everything else, but not a procrastinator. She’d moved back to the Cape to stay in the cottage of her second husband, an even bigger drunk who happened to be in McLean’s at the time. She died alone, of renal failure, and wasn’t found till many days later. Not a pretty picture.”
“We have to focus on the work,” said Daphne, “not the life.”
“The work?” he said. “The work is the problem. Do you know what year this is? Count back twenty-five and then another ten.”
“When she died?”
“The novel she was writing when she died was supposed to have been edited by somebody and published posthumously. It concerns an old friend of hers, a girl who’d been killed in her twenties. She never told me about the girl. The thing was in rough shape from what I hear, but that wasn’t the problem. The snafu arose when two letters by Tibor Brull were discovered within Margie’s manuscript. What was left of the Brull family had granted her access to his letters at NYU for an essay she was writing. She managed to abscond with at least the two discovered when she died. Then it was learned that she’d written into the novel a character called Tibor Brull, based on these stolen letters I imagine, so his estate fought the book’s publication on grounds mysterious to me.”
“How come I never knew about this?”
“No one did. It became a battle of legacies—the Hungarian poet versus the Colorado wildcat. Most of Brull’s family died in the Holocaust, so his estate amounted to distant relatives stateside. It was agreed that the book’s publication would be suppressed for twenty-five years, and then in 1993 the Brull people scored another ten.”
“So it can be published now?”
He closed his eyes tightly. “Her estate has tasked me with the editing.”
“You don’t want to?”
“That’s partially the issue,” he said. “But mainly—she’d rather die again than have me edit her work. I can’t bring myself to look at a single page.”
Daphne felt very sorry—very sorry indeed. She tried to change the subject. “How and when did Pandora die, Elijah?”
He was silent, pursing his lips. “Daphne, I can’t talk about her.”
She had searched “Pandora” high and low, and nothing suggested an identity that could be connected to Elijah Tweeten—Elijah Tweeten, Philip Rahv, Edmund Wilson, Irving Howe, Arthur Miller, Norman Mailer, Delmore Schwartz, or any one of such figures of that time and place.
“Perhaps,” he went on, “when she died, we all just went on as before. No one stopped what he was doing.”
“Was she young, like Linus’s Anna?”
“Do you know Hardy’s poem ‘The Going’?”
She shook her head.
Why did you give no hint that night
That quickly, as if indifferent quite,
You would close your term here, up and be gone
Where I could not follow
With wing of swallow
“You need to talk about her,” she said. “You typed a manuscript about her for Eugenie.”
“I wrote what I thought Eugenie wanted to read.”
“You didn’t tell her the truth?”
“We all turned over our ‘stories’ to her, and then she took us on one by one, pointing out the exaggerations and embellishments, the bruises ignored. That exercise was merely to whip us into shape.”
Now she was completely lost.
“My dear Daphne,” he consoled, “you are entirely too stubborn. You have to see what extra-worldly insight she possesses.”
“I don’t know what it is she possesses, and I don’t trust her.”
“Perhaps her powers are merely psychic,” he went on, “in the sense that she can read whatever subconscious thoughts you are having when you’re talking about something else.” He paused. “She knew, for instance, the hallucinations I’d had a long time ago. Hallucinations while under the influence. I myself had a bad drinking problem that began even before I split with Margie—something I had in common with Linus. Both of us, Daphne. Oh, those sober discussions of the great martinis we’d had! Never the hooker in Madrid or the wife-swapping parties in Pelham Manor but the handiwork of Léon the Sardinian at the Ritz Bar.”
“And you both recovered.”
“Recovery, rebirth,” he muttered. “For Americans that’s what it’s all about.”
“If only we could turn the tables on Larkin’s trees,” she said. “Why do they get born again while we grow locked into our awful habits?”
“Lowell wrote touchingly to Elizabeth Bishop, ‘Do you ever feel that you have almost learned enough at last to be ready to be reborn with profit?’ ”
“Everyone wants to be reborn.”
“Or mistakenly believes that learning enough is the thing that will get him there.”
“We all want more lives, Elijah—second and third chances. Like Henry James’s characters.” She paused. “Or I guess like Henry James.”
“I could never stomach James.”
“Why did you settle on Hardy?”
“Because he is everything Tolstoy is not.’ ”
“You don’t like Tolstoy either?”
“Issues, Daphne. I have issues.”
“I have Ivan Ilyich in my bag,” she said, glancing at the floor by her feet.
“Make sure you keep him there.”
“You and Linus and Jan all have these good and bad relationships with writers and philosophers as if they were people you knew personally.”
He laughed. “You know how they say a person can develop allergies at any time of his life? That holds true for Linus and historical crushes. When he finds a new obsession, it feels like he’s stalking the poor bastard’s ghost.”
“He doesn’t look good. I saw him yesterday. I’m worried.”
“You mustn’t worry.”
“He is losing his faith, Elijah. When I met him he was in the Paul camp; now he’s gone over to Darwin.”
He sighed heavily and removed his turtle glasses to indicate this was all he could take. “As Hardy wrote, ‘What we gain by science is, after all, sadness.’ ”
She left without having said anything about the voice coming out of Eugenie’s phone or the fact that she’d sent the thing away on an elevator. She walked back toward the Square preoccupied by the story of Marjorie Swain, whose novel almost became her dissertation, and Tibor Brull, whose poems her uncle had carried around in his pocket. She wondered why Margie would have stolen the poet’s letters and, more important, who the dead girl was.
With so many questions hanging about her, she decided to duck into the Brattle Theatre to see yet another Clouzot picture she had already seen, Les Diaboliques. That was something else no one did anyone—duck into a movie theater during the workday. She lived too much in the past, in another time and place. She read novels she’d already read and saw movies she’d already seen—in this case a story whose closing credits implored viewers not to reveal the “shocking ending.” Shhhhh—don’t spoil the surprise, even though the shocking ending offered no definitive answer. Was it a horrific haunting, fiendish trickery, or both?