Daphne was again awakened by a ringing phone—her first groggy thought being that Elijah had gone, or maybe Elijah and Jan both. Another twofer day for Das Blaue-Fischreiher-Quartett.
Then she realized it was Linus’s phone that you couldn’t turn off. Her tears from the night before made her eyes feel swollen shut. She ignored the ringing as she showered and dressed and shut the door behind her. “Answer the goddamned phone!” someone shouted down the stairway when she reached bottom.
She got in the Cadillac and drove to the cemetery, the phone wailing all the way. She parked where nobody was—which was easy to do this time of year—and started walking. When she pulled the ringing phone out of her bag, something weightlessly drifted to the ground. She stopped to pick up a sealed envelope—the letter with “Dowling” above the return address. She stared at the envelope and then opened the phone.
“I feel rather dastardly for telling you it’s juniper you’ve been smelling,” said the familiar voice. “I lied. I know quite nothing about plant life, but I adore the word juniper.”
“I adore the words Niels Bohr.”
“Why not tell me who you are?”
“Let’s talk about my secrets, shall we? First the open ones: New York City—I just had to be there, like some Balzac provincial yearning for La Ville Lumière. And it wasn’t for the shop windows and that beautiful skin that women took injections to make happen—not for that, let me tell you. No, I was always drawn to a town’s drifters, to its confidence men, lunch-counter waitresses, dime-store clerks—anyone you’d happen by on the Penn Station concourse at two in the morning. I was more at home in the company of bartenders and cabdrivers, widows and nurses’ aides.
“Oh, Daphne, that time held so much promise—everything seemed possible still, even the utopian hash-outs we’d have, squeezed into a booth at the first glimmer of dawn. To change the world on a small scale; that’s what all of us were after. Everyone I respected was trying to live in a principled way, our ambitions fueled by the energy peace brought.”
“After the Second World War?”
“The Marshall Plan years. That was a good time really. I suppose that’s one useful thing Linus had helped along. And then the Russians got hold of the atomic bomb—just like the boy across the street could suddenly be seen circling his driveway with the same red Schwinn as you. Horrors! And next came the hydrogen bomb, not that anyone understood the subtle differences between these two distinct forms of mass annihilation. I think that was the end of any hope.”
“Hope for what?”
“Look,” the voice said sternly, “there was the big-shiny-world topic and then there was the wretched-little-me topic. As the French waiters say when drolly motioning you toward a roomful of empty tables, la ou la. I got nowhere with politics or with love. And then of course there was the love-politics of being a woman in those years. I will admit that women are certainly physically inferior to men. If this were not so, the history of the world would look very different indeed. Any woman who has ever had her wrist yanked by a man fully understands this fact.”
“Who yanked your wrist?”
“Oh, how I longed to write stories where the worm turns and is triumphant! Do such situations ever occur in natural life?”
“I don’t know of any firsthand.”
“I had an awful compulsion to make virtuoso literary references—as a sort of secret signal, a smug looking over the heads of the readers who don’t understand them to the ones who do. If I had to do it over, Daphne, I would have none of them. Who really cares how well my character can expound on Kant’s categorical imperative? All my readers want to know is: Will he take the bullet at the end?”
“I like novels with a lot of stuff,” Daphne said, “Tolstoy kinds of novels. But then I also like the ones that move fast.”
“ ‘Like a chipmunk running along a drainpipe’ is how an editor put it to me. ‘You need to get your guy through his reminiscing and onto the right-now action that fast.’ Very good advice that I forever ignored.”
“Who was your guy who took the bullet?”
“It’s all water under the bridge, Daph. And besides, I was trying to push my best writing at a time of fads. Fads like Salinger and that calculated sort of metropolitan sentimentality—self-indulgent and wearying. And then all those books about ‘the quest for the self.’ Everyone loves to read books about the strapping boy striking out for the territories, but when you’re older, how on earth do you write them? When you’re older it seems that you must make the self. It’s futile—what was called Beckettian (another fad)—to look for it because you won’t find it. But you do learn from your history of getting some things and not others that in some sense it’s possible to make it, the self.”
“I need to make a self,” said Daphne.
The voice laughed. “For women, the thing is—you stop looking at what other people have. Strike that song from the play list. I get so sick and tired of women writers. In the old world their tendency was to concoct tales with such absurd lengths of drapery, the devil in the details. And in the new world the drapery of custom and conduct was bartered for relationships with mothers. Chekhov could write about a woman’s relationships with mothers and fathers and uncles with great economy—it didn’t go on for four god-awful generations in the same Kentucky town. My relationship with my mother? Can’t think of any useful advice she gave me beyond ‘blondes only work under compulsion.’ ”
“You were a blonde?”
The voice laughed again. “I had a real stream of words once with Marguerite Duras over some crap of a manuscript I was given to read. I told her, ‘Maybe other folks are happy to spend two hundred pages at the heels of your heroine wondering whether a certain married man would be able to give her a decent orgasm, but frankly I’ve got better things to do with my time.’ In an interview with L’Express I really gave Simon de Beauvoir the works. Not that I have anything against Frenchwomen per se. I was a young and avid reader of George Sand and don’t regret the time spent on her.”
“Tell me who you are,” demanded Daphne.
“Frothingham is supposed to be about doubt. All the characters in different ways represent doubt, whether philosophical or ontological doubt. That the protagonist was one Zachariah Frothingham hot out of Wisconsin—that for me was the big hoot. The one thing Margie knew for certain was that the hero had to die at the end, but our Zack was quite the comic figure actually. Don’t you think? Whereas no one thinks of Gatsby with his closets of shirts as being the least bit of a goof. It seems to me that all comic characters are immortal. Think of the Micawbers. They must go on forever and ever, impervious to the brakes of self-reflection and doubt. In fact, it’s everyone in Dickens has this quality—Wegg, Skimpole, Pecksniff, Miss Mowcher. Everyone but the heroes, those bloody sad-sacks.”
“Zack couldn’t be comic if he was the hero.”
“That’s what I mean about the book,” the voice replied. “Its presentation of the market for worldly success was just so different from the rules Dickens laid out for all succeeding writers. It would have to be a woman navigating the ship. A man could never get outside Zack’s ego.”
“And yet the novel is all about men,” argued Daphne.
“I would not last the lifetime of a fruit fly in today’s groves of the academe,” the voice said harshly. “The context of one’s experience has been dynamited out of the waters. You are accountable, as a writer, for the breadth of anthropological sensibilities the world over and for all time. In my generation, all the serious white writers in New York had nothing to say about black Americans until the likes of Wright and Ellison, and then suddenly they all yammered on about ‘the plight of the Negro.’ Hypocrites and reactionaries.”
“Did you write about black Americans?”
“No!” cried the voice. “Not as primary characters. I was as bad as any of them. Sure, I’d describe a scene with children sitting on stoops and men sledge-hammering in work crews. But it was all atmospherics, separate worlds. James Baldwin gave me hell once for a story of mine. He said, ‘You write this beautiful passage about the couple who just got a marriage license. And you ruin it by having to identify them as Negro.’ He was right. Racism makes for bad writing. I always hated the South with a passion, but southern writers re-created the world as they saw the landscape, with the ‘colored’ races present and accounted for.”
“Did you know Faulkner?” asked Daphne.
“He got all the glory!” the voice snapped. “The good reliable stay-at-home drinker. There was a Sunday radio show called ‘Mass for the Shut-ins,’ and I once asked him if he was a regular listener. I really felt for Flannery O’Connor because of the myth that she wanted to be there in her Georgia hometown in the care of her bossy mamma. She was sick with lupus, and she was stuck. It was a matter of logistics. Whereas some people would take the opportunity of domestic captivity to learn Russian or antique an end table, she took the opportunity to raise the bar for everyone calling himself a writer.”
“I like her books.”
“Elijah didn’t—not that much anyway. Did you know he wanted to be a poet? Poor little thing had no talent for verse. He could never quite grasp Frost’s rule of the trade, that ‘like a piece of ice on a hot stove the poem must ride on its own melting.’ ”
“I didn’t know Elijah wrote poems.”
“Our biggest, longest argument was over his compulsion to rate writers—contemporary writers, the ones alive and kicking. As if ‘contemporary writers’ were the boys shown up for the parking-lot kickball tournament. Count heads in tens—twenty, thirty, forty, fifty, five, six, seven. Fifty-seven boys in all, and now we shall rank them. As easy as that. Oh, and maybe one girl or two once the rankings were done and a sharp fall-off in recognizable talent could be detected between, say, numbers twenty-two and twenty-one. Wedge in a female to stem the bleeding. I’d say to him, ‘There are writers the world over who are the best and yet no one knows of their work. Even here in New York, pure genius sitting at the next table. The cream may always rise to the top, but often no one opens the milk bottle.’ ”
“Did you rise to the top?”
“You mean like in heaven? Are you asking if I made it to heaven?”
“I’m asking if there is a heaven.”
“This place is like a goddamned Vienna youth hostel—crammed to the hilt with no one likable.”
“So it’s like hell?”
“Harold Ross once told me, ‘Young woman, you’ve got great talent. You can write cattier than anyone I know except Rebecca West. Keep it up even if they tell you to go to hell!’ ”
“What did you write for Harold Ross?”
“You want to know something, Daphne? Penelope couldn’t have found it so easy when Ulysses turned up.”
“I want to believe you’re that woman in the library,” said Daphne. “The writer in Room 304, the woman Elijah never met. But she died in 1945. It doesn’t make sense.”
“A bad relationship is like a house that has burned to the ground, Daphne. You can walk over and over the ashes, but you’ll never know what started the fire.”
“Not true,” Daphne argued. “There are experts who can tell how fires start, forensic scientists.”
“I’m afraid I died before forensics.”
“Tell me who you are.”
There was no sound from the phone. She listened, but there was no more voice. It was just as well since she’d arrived at her destination.
The pond’s surface appeared more substantial than it had two days ago—perhaps impenetrable. She looked down at the phone in her hand one last time. She took a deep breath and reached her arm back. With all her brute strength, with all her Beast in the Jungle determination, she flung Linus’s phone toward what should have been its watery grave. On impact with the ice it bounced without shattering—one, two, three times. It did not go gently, was in fact still glowing blue.
She sat on a cold bench to watch the immobile phone glowing on the ice. Eventually she noticed the envelope still in her hand. She ripped the seal and pulled out a sheet of ruled paper—the three-hole grade-school kind—folded in thirds. She unfolded a handwritten letter that began “Dear Daphne.” Her eyes skipped down to read the signature: Ed Dowling, preceded by a “Fondly.” She had not even remembered that his name was Ed.
Ed Dowling’s letter said he was going to be in Cambridge on February 27—at a seminar at Harvard—and would like to meet with her. He said that Paul had mentioned where she worked, and that he hoped he wasn’t being forward by searching out that address and writing to her there. He said he’d been thinking of her family a lot lately and wished to see how she turned out, she being his goddaughter. He said this would mean a lot to him being that he had no children himself—would love to have had a daughter he could watch grow up. Here she stopped reading. She looked up again to see that the phone in the middle of the pond had disappeared.
She drove back to her apartment somberly, feeling something missing from inside the very wide car—larger than a phone but smaller than a person, like she’d gone to put a sick animal to sleep. It was blue-sky sunny, however, a happy-looking day. She remembered a song that went Everything is good these days, but all of my friends are dying.
On the steps to her apartment building she encountered a man who seemed to know who she was, had been waiting for her. Middle-aged and overweight, he reminded her of the mayor of Boston because he looked more like a man who might regularly be mistaken for a mobster than an actual mobster.
“We have a mutual friend,” he told her.
She wondered why it had taken so long for this kind of thing to happen. “Eugenie?”
“I don’t know what her name is,” he said. “She gave me Yolanda Baptiste, but that’s another con.”
“What do you want from me?”
“I need to know where she is.”
“I don’t know where she is and I don’t know who you are.”
He held out his hand with a business card. “Vernon St. Urgis. I’m a property developer.”
She took the card and looked at it, half-expecting it to say something else.
“She owes me some serious money,” he said. “I hired a man—Serbian—to look for her.”
She didn’t know what to say to that. “Is that what Serbs do these days,” she asked, “find people?”
“They’ve got that painting back in the Customs House in Salem. Did you know that? The theft was all hush-hush. They didn’t want to be like the Gardner with the lost Vermeer.”
“There’s a world of difference between that painting and a Vermeer.”
“Still, the picture went missing and then the picture turns up.”
“How much does she owe you?” asked Daphne.
“Lots. She owes me lots. There’s a ghostwriter they hired.”
“I don’t know,” he said with a chuckle. “The bad guys, I guess.”
“Are there bad guys?”
He shrugged, like the mayor of Boston often did to reporters. “All I know is I’m not one of them.”
“What did they hire the ghostwriter to write about?”
“About the four old guys at her séances, the ones you’ve been paling around with.”
“Did your Serb tell you that?”
“He told me a couple of them died.”
“You didn’t need a detective to tell you that. You could’ve read it in the Herald.”
“All I want is my money.”
“What’s this person writing about the four men?”
“I gotta go. But I’m telling you: she shows up, you send her to me. Tell her I’m looking for her.”
“Who hired the writer?”
He put on his mobster glasses. “Maybe you should hire a Serb to find out.”