The Cadillac pulled up in front of Jan’s gray house just as the front-room lights were switched on. Daphne saw the square silhouette of Martha Downey clash together long black curtains to shut out the sad day.
In Jan’s absence, Ingrid pinch-hit to host a post-funeral gathering for Harvard faculty and graduate students, neighbors and acquaintances. She had snowy white hair cut in a pageboy style and parted on the side. Even though her hair was stiff from age, she wore a barrette clipped on the right, a gold circle. Her hair around the clip waved and was oiled yellow in a way that told you she wore this circular barrette all the time. She also wore a charcoal gray turtleneck and a wool pleated skirt of the same charcoal gray. And low-heeled gray pumps. She was telling an audience of young scholars how Nietzsche defined romanticism as “delivery for the soul through the imagined transcendence of real limitations.”
Daphne and Elijah listened to the one-sided Nietzsche conversation as Jan worked the crowd. “I would divorce her too,” Daphne eventually whispered to Elijah, who had sunk into an old overstuffed but somehow ragged sofa.
Jan came over and fell backside into the same wretched piece of furniture that supported Elijah, causing Elijah to disappear even further into the shabby upholstery.
Daphne sat on an ottoman in front of him—or more accurately, an old round hassock with a single tuft and an enormous vinyl-covered button. “Everyone’s tired and should go to bed.”
“We want to stay up to see Santa,” said Elijah.
“Did you tell her your cunning plan?” asked Jan, moving awkwardly to face his buddy.
“What plan?” asked Daphne.
Jan deferred to Elijah, who cleared his throat. “My dear Miss Daphne. It has been deliberated by the Powers That Be, and the Powers That Be have decided that it should be you given the job of editing Margie’s manuscript.”
Jan nodded with finality. “That’s the right solution to Elijah’s problem.”
“And we hope is it the answer to your problem,” Elijah told Daphne.
She looked at one man and then other. “What’s my problem?”
“Memory!” cried Jan. “You need to be on good terms with memory!”
Daphne shook her head. “Memory is what ought to prevent you from buying a dog after the first one dies—but it never does.”
“Jan is thinking about getting more dachshunds,” said Elijah.
“If Schopenhauer could live down a poodle,” said Jan, “why not I get more dachshunds?”
“My dear Miss Daphne,” said Elijah. “We four may have looked like senile old goats, but we know—or knew—more than anyone would think.”
“So who is this fellow?” asked Jan.
She was startled and tired—more so tired.
“Don’t play the deaf-mute!” shouted Jan.
“You know what fellow,” said Elijah.
“Who is he?” demanded Jan.
Yeah, she now thought, who is he who never came back and thus won’t ever go away? “Who was he,” she said, looking down at the hands she held together at the wrists. “The Land of Was.”
“We’ve all been there,” said Elijah.
“What do you mean?” cried Jan. “We all live there!”
They’d been through so much and here they were being kind.
“He died in an accident the summer of 2000,” she told them.
“What else?” Jan persisted.
“Mike and Ike were his cats, and when he died they ran away. I had convinced him to get a dog to replace his dog that was killed by a car, but he was in Harvard Square going to the movies and there was this guy with a raincoat and kittens in peril.”
“How long did you know him?” asked Elijah.
She looked away, for she hated counting. “Almost two years.”
Jan was impatient. “Well tell us something!”
“He was a post-doc at MIT. His field was theoretical physics, string theory. He was working with the quantum mechanics people looking for the Theory of Everything—the correct fundamental description of nature. The extra dimensions of the universe. His grandfather was Karl Tobel.”
“Holy Moses!” said Elijah.
“What do you mean Moses?” cried Jan. “The man was the most famous anti-Semite of his time!”
Daphne shrugged. “His daughter married a Jew.”
“Poetic justice!” said Elijah.
“So what kind of accident?” asked Jan.
She was at a loss for words. “There was a crash—a motorcycle crash.”
“He rode a motorcycle?” asked Elijah.
“No. Other people were on the motorcycle.”
“What kind of person was he?” asked Jan. “Was he like you?”
This was always hard to answer. “He was the kind of person who said, ‘If you can’t be yourself, who do you suppose will stoop to doing it for you?’ ”
“Being quotable’s always an asset,” said Elijah.
She shook her head. “He was brilliant.”
“That’s a much better asset!” said Jan.
“His life had a core density equal to the Earth,” she said. “I always thought of him like that.”
“Daphne, my dear,” said Elijah, “string theory means about as much to me as flyswatter theory. What the devil did he want to find out?”
“Yes,” said Jan. “What did he want to know?”
“He wanted to know why the past and the future are so different. The universe started off orderly—with dense dark energy—and has been getting more disorderly. The asymmetry of time is just not natural by the universe’s rules.”
“Nor by Hardy’s rules,” said Elijah. “Remember the circle, Daphne.”
Jan appeared much more relaxed, leaning back with abandon into the crumbling mushroom of a couch. “Tell us how he was brilliant, Daphne.”
“I can’t explain his world,” she told them, “but he could make it real and logical even to someone like me. He could make me see the difference between microstates and macrostates, what a weird thing like ‘the Higgs Boson’ might do. He could make it sound so exciting—what’s been happening to the universe over a period of time we can’t even comprehend.
“Like how really dense dark energy can fluctuate into existence—this jiggly thing that becomes a small patch. And if you have the right conditions, any one of these patches can inflate and pinch off to form a new universe. It’s mind-boggling. The laws of physics that explain the universe’s behavior don’t distinguish between past and future, and yet we can tell that the early universe is totally different from the one we have today. He wanted to know why our universe has become dilute and cool. And that turns out to be a question of time.
“He wanted to be the one to crack the code of time, and people thought he could do it. He had his father’s and his grandfather’s genes; he found a four-leaf clover just one time looking. He was blessed with something, yet tragedy kept coming back to him—like on a timer. Like the phases of the moon. Everybody died on him. He was afraid I was going to be next.”
The men, side by side, had either fallen asleep or were on the verge of doing so. With Jan there was one eyelid—like a dog’s nearest to the blanket—that twittered on the threshold, daring anybody or anything to do something rash and sudden. She sat there with them for a few minutes, keeping vigil from the large hassock. She didn’t want them to die on her either.
It was dark by the time she’d found a parking space for the Caddy. Its size sometimes sent her another neighborhood away in search for a place to leave it. The sky had cleared, providing the opportunity to gaze at infinity. She remembered what Linus had said about Darwin: It was the universe’s vast and perfect indifference that he found most wondrous. It seemed to her that the vast, indifferent universe ought to contain a constellation called Cerca trova. You’d always have to do the work to find it—not like the Big Dipper always popping out.
At home she dialed Paul’s number to tell him that she knew—knew about the affair their mother was having with Ed Dowling.
“Ed Dowling?” he replied. “Ed was just the one who ratted them out. You can’t tell me you didn’t know about the affair.”
She felt she was talking to someone many decades older. “I hate that word, affair.”
“Why do you think Jack never married?”
“You never married,” she said. “I never married.”
“Daph, you blotted so much out—you always walked away from conversations. You never wanted to talk about the past.”
“Talking about the past is like a cat trying to explain climbing down a ladder.”
“I bet you don’t even know anything about Ed Dowling.”
“Why should I?”
“Didn’t you talk to him at Jack’s funeral? He was your godfather.”
She didn’t know what to say.
“The guy lost his wife,” he went on, “and he loved Mom. He had a hard time. He was in a car crash in college and the other kid died. He had to live with that his whole life. He didn’t have kids, didn’t have a family. He was jealous. He told Dad about Mom and Jack because he loved Mom himself. It’s like everyone loved Mom.”
“You really think so?”
“I don’t know who she is or was with all her affairs.”
“It was just one.”
“How do you know it was one? Ed Dowling doesn’t know everything.”
“He’s not the one who told me about the affair. Jack told me. When everything blew up, Mom broke it off with him. And then she was alone and unhappy for years, and Jack was alone and unhappy for years. The only one who was happy was Dad, when he met Nancy. I can’t believe you never wanted to know the truth.”
She couldn’t stand hearing that word. “Why does everyone think the truth is what they know and I don’t?”
She felt in the void of his hesitation what he really wanted to say to her—that everyone doesn’t go around trying to kill herself.
She remained silent.
“It’s funny you mentioned never marrying,” he said, “because I think I am getting married.”
“Actually, I know I’m getting married. Finally.”
“I need a family.”
“You have a family.”
She hung up on him. And cried.