Daphne arrived at Simon’s favorite café to find the surviving half of the Quartet seated and pondering a stainless-steel teapot like it was a chessboard.
“Austeja Dapkunaite!” Jan cried when he noticed her approaching. As she set down the chair she had lifted on the way, he added, “That was her real name!”
Elijah nodded ever so slightly. “The Duchess Va-Va-Voom.”
“They called her Jaja,” said Jan.
The three of them sat without talking. Death was death regardless of the motives of its victims. Jan finally broke the consensual silence: “At least the dog survived!”
“Poor Queequeg,” said Daphne, shaking her head. “He must have PTSD.”
Jan scowled. “What’s that?”
“It means he may have nightmares,” said Elijah.
“They always have nightmares,” scoffed Jan. “Haven’t you ever watched a dog sleep?”
Daphne had to laugh. “Don’t you think they’re having happy dreams about chasing rabbits?”
“My dogs dreamt that I had frikandellen in the skillet that I refused to share with them. So they were nightmares.”
Now Jan had turned to brooding. “The man is certainly hateful, but this is terrible what has happened to him.”
“Winkill or Trygve?” asked Daphne.
The bullet entering Thornton Winkill pierced his spine, with the expectation that he would be paralyzed, unable to walk—like George Wallace, Larry Flynt, and Dr. Strangelove.
“So was it her?’ she asked.
Jan shook his head. “I don’t believe she could seek to take a life.”
“Perhaps she thought she was avenging Simon’s,” said Elijah.
“But she left Simon there with Winkill,” argued Daphne. “She set him up.”
“You don’t know that,” said Jan. “You said you arrived, and it was only Simon and him.”
“There’s more to the story,” said Elijah.
“Perhaps she merely meant to frighten him with the bullets,” said Jan. He was upset. “What did she mean by anything? This has come to so much grief!”
“We didn’t understand her motives,” said Daphne. “Or at least I didn’t. If you don’t understand what motivates people, they are as unpredictable as psychopaths.”
“She’s an enigma,” said Elijah. “She’s much older than she looks.”
“I thought she was much younger than she looks,” said Jan.
“She wore too many saris,” said Daphne.
Elijah sang, “Who’s sari now?”
It was all so absurd. How could a clown wield such dangerous power?
“In any event,” said Jan with a sigh, “she is at large.”
Here Elijah turned to his open valise on the floor beside him. “On that discordant note,” he said, struggling to extract the contents, “I have Margie’s goods.”
He produced four inches of yellowed, sloppily aligned manuscript and slapped it on the table the way men in cooking shows did a large intact fish. The musty paper was enveloped by a stained Manila folder and three dingy rubber bands. It reminded Daphne of the stuff heaving out of the Pent-a-flex folders blocking Eugenie’s stairway.
“Anything you want to tell me about it?” she asked.
“Haven’t looked at it,” said Elijah.
She was skeptical. “Nothing?”
“Just this advice: Don’t go over-editing. If the Times had got hold of Cole Porter’s scribbling we’d be left with To the beat of the drum, night ’n day, you’re the one.”
“Don’t be harsh on Tibor Brull,” said Jan.
“So he is definitely a character?” she asked Elijah.
“I’m assuming. As I said, I haven’t read it.”
“Do you like his work?” she asked Jan.
“As a young man I had one of his books.”
“There weren’t many,” said Elijah. “He died, remember.”
“Was it Five Winters?” she asked Jan.
“Yes, that’s the one.”
Elijah looked down at the slatternly stack. “Her estate made photocopies of the Brull letters she pinched. They’re somewhere in here.”
“Did you at least read them?” she asked.
He shook his head.
“Aren’t you curious?”
He sighed. “And, Daddy, can I have that big elephant over there?”
She smiled. “Don’t you at least want to know if the hero takes the bullet at the end?”
This made him smile as well. “You already sound like Margie.”
“Take the bullet or take the hemlock,” said Jan testily, “someone needs to die if there is to be a book!”
Now Daphne felt sad. “Yes, someone always needs to die.”
Jan stared at her. “So, where is he?”
Elijah made a face. “Where is who?”
Jan continued to look at Daphne. “Where is your X buried?”
She felt she ought to have been taken off guard by this, but she wasn’t. “He’s not,” she said.
“Then what did you do with his body?” he pressed.
She looked about uncomfortably. “His ashes are in my apartment.” And then down at her hands. “In a box, in a corner. He had an uncle on the Tobel side who claimed all his family’s money, but luckily I got the ashes.” She paused. “I need to do something with them.”
“Where did he want his ashes to end up?” asked Elijah.
She continued to stare at her hands. “He didn’t know he was going to die.”
“Water,” said Jan, “is always a good place.”
She nodded. “That was my plan. But I don’t know where. He wouldn’t want it to be back in Chicago. There was no space at the cemetery with his parents and sister.”
Jan grunted. “Why not throw them in the pond at Mount Auburn? You seem to like throwing things in there.”
She flinched at this. “Sometimes I think the reason I don’t get sad at Mount Auburn is because he’s not there.”
“Speaking for the living,” said Elijah, “I say let’s eat something.”
Jan’s face lit up. “Pastries for the house!”
After snacks of lemon squares and kiwi tarts and the appearance of Martha Downey, who’d come in her Skylark to fetch the pair, Daphne made sure to hug them both like she might never see them again. When they’d gone, she removed the rubber bands and the folder and began turning pages.
How does it happen that a life is erased this perfectly—not merely a singular configuration of molecules but the infinite possibilities of language? The genius I am defending from memory annihilation was not sent to the Gulag or kept just on torment’s edge like Akhnatova. All she did was live—and write.
She was my lover’s neighbor when the brutal part of the erasure occurred. Immediately after, French-speaking nuns—one tall and thin, the other short and fat—came “for poor Emily’s sentimental things” but went away with armfuls of paper. They took it, all of it, her legacy, after he took her life.
What kind of book was this? The narrator was not named, but it seemed to be Margie telling her own life story, which didn’t at all square with what Elijah had said about her loathing the confessional in poetry and fiction. The erased life belonged to Emily Hanscomb, whose story sounded too comical to be real—a foundling discovered in a picnic basket on a covered bridge, a rural Catholic parish taking the discarded child as its ward, the nuns like drawings out of the Madeleine books.
But Marjorie Swain was not the type to write cliché. This Emily grew up and went through many rings of hell to arrive in New York in 1941, a “sad little wage-maker” writing advertising copy for Gimbels while trying to write the Great American Novel. Her hasty marriage to a sailor with the same surname—overlaying Hanscomb onto Hanscomb—and finally her fateful discovery by Tibor Brull, in the Oak Room bar at the Plaza.
But here was the killer: “You knew where to find her if you cared to look—in Room 304 of the New York Public Library.” Had Elijah really not looked at Margie’s manuscript ever? Or was it that he had looked at Margie’s manuscript at another time—say, in 1968, after she died—and that’s where the story of Pandora came from?
Daphne found the two badly photocopied letters from Brull—both disappointingly short, both disappointingly French. His handwriting slanted leftward, as if trying to lie down on its back. She didn’t bother trying to translate. There were two short sentences in slanted English: “I saw a woman in love today. Why would it be so against your nature for you to behave so—to advertise your love as you advertise bijoux?”
She also found a copy of an old newspaper page that was made from a microfiche, so most of the paper was smudged with black: “Woman found dead in 86th Street apt.” According to what she could read of the article, it was the apartment of a man known as The Faucet King, and it appears to have been accidental, although the NYPD “did not rule out foul play.” A large wall shelf of Asian antiquities had toppled onto her, and she died from head and other injuries. Apparently the brackets had pulled loose from the walls. Those antiquities, said The Faucet King, were priceless. He and The Faucet Queen knew neither Emily Hanscomb nor why she’d been in their apartment.
According to the narrator in Margie’s book, it was Brull behind the foul play—and then he went and jumped off a bridge. There was a lot of story behind it she couldn’t possibly absorb from just skimming pages. She’d been taught to trust the tale, not the teller, but Elijah as teller had spoken so genuinely of this woman in Room 304. Elijah’s Pandora seemed so real in his words. Yet how could there be this much coincidence in the cool and dilute universe?
She wondered if this was what the real thing looked like—literature, recorded one non-retractable carriage peck at a time. The enclosed space in the “e” was inked solid; the “n” descended well below the serif baseline. But it was troubling to read that the Margie character was “insanely jealous” of Emily’s in-progress manuscript, parts of which the Margie character had read—this mysterious manuscript that disappeared with the tall and short nuns. It was troubling because it might be surmised that this was the germ of Margie’s Frothingham, that she had taken what she remembered of Emily’s book for her own after Emily disappeared from the earth.
Or maybe the story of the nuns was just that. Maybe it was Margie who carried away Emily’s papers, and the pent-up guilt over the years was the reason for the manuscript.
The girl behind the counter squeezed the balloon on the Harpo Marx–style rubber horn twice, indicating the café would be closing in fifteen minutes. The kids folding their laptops, the bussing bin with the tower of stacked cappuccino cups leaning like Pisa, the amateurish artwork for sale on the red walls—Daphne looked up to find these same things looking very different.
She had heard of other ghosts—the one seen by the nonbeliever’s dead mother and more recently the one seen by Mr. Dowling’s dead wife. It did not seem outlandish to think she had experienced a haunting, the ghost in the machine of a phone or a digital recorder, whether “Pandora” was the stage name of Margie Swain or Emily Hanscomb. The only question was which story sprung from quantum physics—the ghost in the machine or the genius of Eugenie? Perhaps the manuscript Daphne had seen Elijah give her that day was a copy of this one in front of her. She thought about the “MSS EUGENIE” on the three mailboxes and the Fedex air bills—“MSS” ought to stand for “manuscripts.” Perhaps the mysterious Eugenie was merely an amalgamation of manuscripts—the ones she demanded of all her confidents, the ones that blocked her stairway. Perhaps Eugenie could outdo even Nabokov’s claim of exile: “In my suitcase there are more manuscripts than shirts.”
Perhaps this, perhaps that. Perhaps to clear the café of dawdlers the song that cycled on to the stereo was Todd Rundgren’s “Can We Still Be Friends.”
Of course she now thought about her mother when she thought about Jack. She remembered him talking about the notorious incident of her mother bringing Paul to see the Beatles. “If she was born just five years later she’d have been fine.” What did Jack believe? (a) That her mother wasn’t fine and (b) that he himself would die before he hit thirty.
Let’s admit we made a mistake, but can we still be friends?
He survived a total of four run-ins with lightning. His tent was struck by it twice—near Lake Champlain and in the Allegheny highlands of Pennsylvania. Luckily the poles took the charge on both hits. His rental car was struck in the middle of the night while he was driving in Oklahoma, instantly knocking out the electrical system—an “act of God” that insurance doesn’t cover. And lightning struck a pole barn where his research team was hoarding samples of Marcellus shale, setting it ablaze in a massive blue fireball.
His fascination with lightning Daphne found contagious. He told her there were somewhere between 1,500 and 2,000 thunderstorms occurring on Earth at any given time, and that lightning can strike from a clear blue sky, after the storm has wound down to a distant squelch. A fifth of all lightning victims are immediately struck dead. You die because the electrical rhythm of your heart has been interrupted, your cardiomyocytes decimated. Lightning can also halt breathing by shutting down the respiratory drive. It travels over surfaces so fast it doesn’t have a chance to burn. The miracle with lightning is that so many survive, not that some die.
La la la-la la la la-la . . . can we still get together some time?
Miracles were not something Daphne ever talked about with her mother. She didn’t even know what her mother believed about God—nothing beyond I didn’t make you get down on your knees and pray.
As for the universe, she remembered that her mother took her out of school one day to visit the Rochester Planetarium, where people leaned back in the dark and didn’t speak, the hugeness of the ersatz black universe almost pornographic above the people not speaking. Her mother had whispered, “Let’s stay here forever, Daphne, you and me. Looking at the stars, waiting for some to burn out and die away.”
We awoke from our dreams, things are not always what they seem . . .
And now she remembered a birthday card that her uncle had made for her—a drawing of one of the new Very Large Array radio telescopes that were being installed in the New Mexican desert. Inside the card he wrote, “Kiss your mom once in a while—for Paul, for you, and don’t forget me, Daphne.”