Victor Slocum’s heart came from a guy killed in a car crash,” Daphne told Linus Steinbrenner at the cemetery. “He was only nineteen, the guy. He was known for having a ‘Zen-like’ demeanor—very calm.”
“Calm,” he repeated, nodding.
“Victor got so excited talking about his research that I worried about something going wrong with his transplanted heart. The more he talked, the more excited he became. We were in this enormous room—a hall technically—that was all white and had floor-to-ceiling drawers. He pulled one of the drawers and out came a tray of dead songbirds, lying in rows on their backs. Then he pulled out another tray and another—the same species from the past three hundred years. ‘Seventeen thousand warblers total!’ Bazillions it seemed to me. He was grinning so crazily over these dead birds that everything changed. Here was a man who owed his life to another man’s death—here he was practically drooling over his collection of stolen lives.”
Linus again nodded like a benevolent judge. “The ethicist Leon Kass described organ transplants as ‘a noble form of cannibalism.’ ”
“I tried to make my feelings change,” she continued, “by thinking what a heroic person he was. But I was loathing him, despising him. I felt like I was in a Poe story—sick and nauseous in his big white room. There was a smell in there that seemed the smell of death. I thought of Victor’s second heart—the incredible costs of plopping the harvested organ into him—and the heart of, say, a hummingbird, which just gives out because nature programmed its heartbeat like an electric mixer at high speed.”
Now his look was quizzical, as if the thread of logic had disappeared.
“It’s crazy, I know, to wind up at a cemetery when you’re running away from death. But this place is my only sanctuary in the world.” She shook her head. “We don’t make any progress, Mr. Steinbrenner. There is mounting terrorism and now probably this pre-approved war. I don’t want a war. I want to see live birds.”
He’d lowered his head in deliberation.
“I’ve seen people selling apples amid rotting corpses,” he said after an extended silence. “The great distance between life and death diminishes so quickly. Did you know that even up until the 1920s Americans ate songbirds and shorebirds? My mother’s cook would wax nostalgic over deep-dish robin pie. Brahmin Boston restaurants served whimbrels and bobolinks, hummingbirds on walnut shells.”
“The French suck the brains out of every bird they eat.”
He laughed. “Ah, but we have a Waterloo! The British have fashioned toad crossings on highways.”
“I prefer toads to Tony Blair, birds to Jacques Chirac.”
“You haven’t lived long enough to say such things. Wherefore this premature pessimism?”
“You’re so kind to be asking questions about me. You’re the one with the amazing life. You were there—the cold war, the Russians when they were Soviets, the Missile Crisis.”
“And the crises continue,” he said sadly, “with or without my meddling.”
“Tell me about history, Mr. Steinbrenner.”
“Linus,” he insisted.
“Give me a slogan, Linus—something to help me be diplomatic.”
“I am long retired, Daphne,” he replied with a sad smile. He pulled the phone from his pocket, as if in punctuation.
In the grip of what threatened to be an NPR moment of pathos, she had the presence of mind to be shocked by the phone’s size—not merely as large as phones from five years ago, but almost the length of those toy walkie-talkies boys used to want for Christmas.
“I’ll leave you so you can make your call,” she said as she stood.
“Oh, no, no, no,” he replied, touching her arm, drawing her down. She sat, and he unfolded the phone to release the blue glow between them, as if heralding the arrival of a genie. “I must confess that I admire this device. Just holding it in my hand. This is my idolatry, Daphne, my golden calf.” He seemed genuinely content. “Here,” he said, handing her the strange instrument.
Linus Steinbrenner’s phone unfolded was less like a walkie-talkie than a Star Wars toy. She half-expected it to burn her hand, like a light bulb, but it was merely warm—and weightless despite its size. Something about the contours made it comfortable to hold, reminding her of those commercials for sanitary napkins that gave ergonomic 3-D illustrations of the pad with a voiceover assuring you that it was “designed by a woman.”
“This is quite the phone,” she said.
He smiled. “And you of course don’t have one.”
She looked out at the pond. “I’ll wait for the message in a bottle.”
“I’m afraid I don’t have the luxury of time.”
“This is quite the phone,” she repeated, looking down, “but still I don’t understand.”
“You mean the way people are enslaved by it?”
“I do marvel that I’ve lived to this point in our history, Daphne. I hadn’t seen much of the world before 1936—bouts with rheumatic fever in childhood put me five years behind what ought to have been my graduating class. I was in Berlin working for State when fighting started. They locked us up when the war in the Pacific began. I made it to Portugal and then came back to the States to work as a cryptanalyst—that’s a code-breaker—for the navy. I was an attaché to Telford Taylor at the Nuremburg trials, when Mittleuropa no longer consisted of nations but color-coded zones, their rules of law handed down by these uniforms or those uniforms.” He paused to clear his throat. “And between the zones were no-man’s-lands—extended ditches policed by skittish American kids clutching their rifles in the dark.”
He paused again. “Every place the jeep stopped to let me out . . . that was Ground Zero. Each new hellhole outdone by the next. In 1945 I was convinced—convinced, Daphne—that we had not merely lost a few hundred years in our maturity as a civilization but had no hope of recovering. Between Marshall and the State Department I had appointments all over Central Europe and the Middle East—a year alone in Dresden. By the time I was thirty-seven I felt I’d seen a slide show of every culture’s worst nightmare—and this was before my posting in Moscow. So much is gained and then so much lost. But now we have the ability to communicate instantaneously, Daphne, to tell those we love how we feel, in a wingbeat.”
In a wingbeat, she thought—if only it went that way.
“Though I do wonder,” he continued, “how the Heathcliffe of today would be able to brood with such imperviousness if given the option of using his roaming minutes on the moors. Or a latter-day Christ wandering the desert, looking down every now and again at the phone in his hand.”
Daphne was entranced by his words but unwilling to compromise. “It trivializes,” she declared.
“Or perhaps it eliminates our excuses.”
“It feels so much like the end of something,” she insisted, “this filling up every moment of our lives with banalities. The important things get lost.”
“Far from that,” he continued, animated. “It is, rather, a continuum.” He paused and briefly placed the wobbly index finger over his mouth. “You seem to be bothered by the intrusions, but consider what urban life was like one hundred-some years ago. The Great Migration of the Irish and Eastern Europeans, people packed on ships like animals, enduring insufferable conditions just to have the opportunity to experience—merely to arrive at—financial destitution. For most Americans at that historical moment, life was steerage—not just during the voyage but into the holding cells at Ellis Island and onto the tenements of Brownsville. You could not escape the sensation of under-fed elbows from adjacent bunks digging into your space, your habeas corpus, your very soul. Believe me, Daphne, cellular telephones are much less intrusive.”
She knew he was absolutely right as she stared at the open phone. The blue intensity caused her to blink repeatedly.
“The numbers,” she asked, “what order are they in?”
“Does there have to be an order?”
Whatever the numeric scheme, it started at the top left with 4 and ended at the lower right with 1.
“So strange,” she said, turning the phone, looking for the product name. There were no markings whatsoever—no model or serial numbers.
“May I add your phone number to my strange phone?”
“Sure,” she said, handing it back to him.
“I have one number in here,” he said, “one and only one.”
She told Linus Steinbrenner her work number and watched as his shaky thumb jabbed at a keypad devoid of logic. She wondered whose one number was in his phone—the daughter who’d given him the weird thing? She imagined this daughter possessing a rarefied sense of humor, schooled in Switzerland, adoring of her parents but often lonely. She could already see Linus’s daughter interviewed on public television, recounting childhood opinions about Stalin’s mustache.
“There,” he said, squinting with satisfaction. “I’ve done it.” He showed her how DAPHNE was now etched into the blue radiance. “This should intrigue Das Blaue-Fischreiher-Quartett.”
“Should I guess what that means?”
“You will know soon enough,” he replied, folding the phone and returning it to his pocket.
“What do you mean?” she pressed, laughing.
“You,” he stressed with the wobbly finger, “you, my brand-new friend—you shall be our arbiter elegantiae.”
She was about to repeat her question when he slapped—or attempted to slap—his hands on the tops of his knees.
“Let’s walk to that intersection,” he said, nodding toward a nearby crossroads. “I’m being collected there at ten to two.”
She glanced at her wrist. “I’m afraid I forgot to wind my watch.”
He laughed. “No phone . . . and a wind-up watch to boot!”
It was an old timepiece Daphne wore, a children’s watch manufactured to promote an animated Disney movie. The original band had disintegrated long ago, but her memory of that robin’s-egg hue replicated on the face’s numerals and “Alice” script kept her searching for a band of that color—searching well into adult life, until one day a few weeks back she’d found it.
“On the face it says Alice,” she noted, holding out her arm.
“The Reverend Dodgson’s Alice.”
He approved. “A man with a vocation.”
She took his arm to help him stand.
“Is that the kind of watch they urge on you at Live Every Day,” he asked with amusement, “so that you will always be embarking on adventures through looking-glasses and down rabbit holes?”
She told him the watch had been a gift from her godfather, Mr. Dowling.
“The name has a Regency ring to it.”
Thinking about her childhood was like eating hard candy on a bad tooth, but he was right about the Regency ring.
“I always called him Mr. Dowling and now can’t even remember what he did for a living,” she confessed. “He was handsome and charming—older than my parents. I remember he did magic tricks at my uncle’s birthday party. He never gave me anything but this watch, sent certified-delivery and for no specific reason—a blue watch out of the blue. It included a ceramic statue of the Disney Alice—pretty, strawberry-blonde, not the Alice of literature. My mother always said she couldn’t remember why they asked him to be my godfather. He was a village selectman and his wife had died—that I remember. He was known for being very sad without his wife. It seems so long ago now, his magic tricks, as if they took place before I was born.”
He seemed quite taken by this. “The mysterious, long-ago Mr. Dowling.”
“For a while I thought that ‘godfather’ meant God the father,” she continued, “and that God was named Mr. Dowling.”
“Our Lord and Father in Heaven, Mr. Dowling.”
“Of course that was all before I was straightened out,” she explained. “About religion, faith, believing—the divine milieu.”
He smiled but now seemed distressed.
“What is it?” she asked.
“Lately, Daphne . . . lately I’ve had this terrible, quite vicious fear—the fear that I’m losing faith.”
Though she was holding his arm, she didn’t know how to be a comforter—not to the everyday malaise of bent fenders and lost promotions let alone this. Her uncle used to paraphrase something said by a Peter De Vries character in regard to anyone’s loss of faith—that it wasn’t such a tragedy, like losing a wooden leg in an accident.
“Loss of faith is the ultimate crisis,” he declared.
“A quiet one I guess.”
“Yes,” he agreed. “I don’t imagine people write show tunes about it.”
“There was a rock-and-roll song about ‘losing my religion.’ ”
“Not my religion, Daphne, my faith. Not the same. Faith is the difference between life and death.”
“I thought love was the difference between life and death,” she said in a tone she realized was sarcastic.
“Love can exist in death,” he said with conviction. “Love can thrive in death. Song of Songs: Love is as strong as death. The flash of it is the very fire of God himself.”
A flash of white in the road Daphne registered as a car having passed them; it halted abruptly and backed up with equal speed, the Audi circles like the crest on a jouster’s shield.
“He’s certainly gunning it,” she said.
“She,” Linus corrected. “My neighbor Mathilde. Kind, delightful woman. Indiscriminate in her appetite for Brahms. Charming nonetheless.”
The car’s passenger window descended. “Need a lift, buddy?”
Leaning over the seat was one of those over-forty Northern European faces whose beauty you knew would never call time. Not exotic beauty but the reliable kind in magazine ads for Scandinavian skin creams. This beauty had the accent of a Marlene Dietrich impersonator.
“A lift and a transfusion!” Linus exclaimed.
Daphne declined a lift, explaining that her time at the cemetery was not up.
“You have promises to keep?”
She smiled as she stewarded his frail body into the car.
“Another pearl of wisdom from Paul to you,” he said when situated but still gripping her hand. “‘We die every moment.’ ”
She dutifully summarized before shutting the door: “I am in peril every hour because I die every moment.”
“Das Blaue-Fischreiher-Quartett,” he said, framed by the open window. He reached again for her hand, whispering, “Our arbiter elegantiae.”
His hoarse voice made her realize that she had spoken with him for almost an hour as if he were a peer, and that this had exhausted him. Before self-recrimination could even take effect, Mathilde gunned it again, taking Linus Steinbrenner away.
The pedestrian thought that he would die soon made her turn away from the bench and the pond and walk toward Spruce Avenue, Bellwort Path, and ultimately Bucky Fuller’s grave.
When he was thirty-two and grieving loss and failure, he knew he’d had enough. As he stood on the shore of Lake Michigan, prepared to surrender to the icy water, he wondered what would happen if you lived as though you’d already died. What if the thing you let go was not your body but your ego? You’d no longer be a failure if your ego had died of hypothermia.
She placed two nickels, heads up, astride the birth and death dates on the modest, flat-lying stone: “Help me, Bucky.” She couldn’t even say what she wanted, only that she believed in the ritual because it was hers and no one else’s.
She cut down the hill to the Pyrola Path, where she liked to look at the stone of Barnabas Bates, “Father of Cheap Postage.” Right after that came the stone over McGeorge Bundy. Sometime in the sixties an interviewer asked Bob Dylan what he’d do first if elected president. “Make McGeorge Bundy change his name” was his reply. If Bob Dylan had been president, this stone would say something else—Barnabas Bates perhaps, or Bim Skala Bim, Bada-Bada-Bing.
She decided to loop back for the pine needles even though she rarely made tea. She knew she’d forget what she stuffed in her pocket, discover the brown and brittle stash years later, when everyone else had moved on. She hated the thought of “everyone else” but could never steer clear of it. In the spring her brother had arranged for her to visit the Grand Canyon as an inspirational jump-start to being like everyone else. She knew the kind of depression Paul feared for her—not like a tropical one that does its damage and moves on but more like those holes on the landscape of the moon—always there, often not visible by telescope, yet always there; no start and stop dates.
Though she traveled to the bottom of the Grand Canyon to be like everyone else, it was only at Mount Auburn where Daphne could find the earth to come down to—come down not from the heights of idealism but more the vertigo of having opened too many windows in naive pursuit of verifiable truth. More and more, her desktop searches left her lost amid the polarized light waves, a virtual Gretel without the Hansel or the breadcrumbs or even the deep dark wood. It was 2002 and she needed reminding to stay alive. Luckily, she had Mount Auburn for the code-orange crisis of being missing when you were already home.