“Ninety-nine and a half and an old-school Dem,” said Daphne’s boss from over her shoulder. “Vietnam recant, cussed out McNamara. I just read a book.”
“Should I give you a cookie?” she asked, her eyes fixed on the old talking head talking to Charlie Rose.
“He looks happy at least.”
“That’s because he was younger. It’s 1991. His wife was alive.”
“Whatever his age, he ain’t gonna fly with the Helix.”
“This isn’t work-related,” she said, closing one screen and clicking on another. “I’m a slacker.”
“Only in my office do people slack off reading about foreign-policy geezers and not cruising Hot Military Stud.”
Live Every Day consisted of nine people at its Cambridge headquarters and a handful more scattered in remote locations. The three-year-old nonprofit had no reason to exist other than the peccadilloes of its anonymous founders, a couple of immense wealth known to their employees only as “the Helix.” There was a Live Every Day Foundation with a board of directors, but it was the Helix who called the shots on which inspirational individuals qualified as truly billboard-inspirational. And these were usually some permutation of apolitical cancer survivor. “Just go out and find me the Lance Armstrong of every intramural sport imaginable” was the cruise-control work ethic of Andy Pelser, Daphne’s boss.
Now Daphne’s screen showed a much younger Linus, smiling and squinting with slicked-back hair. He wore a light-colored suit, the fabric rippling from wear but not quite wrinkled; a cigarette burned cavalierly from the hand on his hip. There was a flair to him—he was attractive and outdoors in his rippling urban suit. It must have been in the field of an industrial farm because he was listening to the three bearded, burly men surrounding him. They were Slovaks, said the caption; it was 1939.
“He sort of looked like Kevin Spacey,” she mused.
“I hope he didn’t act like Kevin Spacey.”
“He acted like a cold warrior.”
“So why the sudden interest?”
“I met him at a cemetery.”
“Was he taking measurements?”
She shook her head. “I can’t believe he’s ninety-three and getting around Cambridge on his own.”
“You just called him a cold warrior. Maybe there’s some kind of sword-in-the-stone thing going on.”
She looked back to the face on the screen. “It’s crazy to live so long.”
Weeks after their meeting, it was often Linus Steinbrenner whom Daphne thought about while researching the interview potential of apolitical cancer survivors. The man had not only the bon mot but often the last word on American history and culture, international and U.S.-Soviet relations, political theory and the arms race, the environment and globalization. His ascent from an unknown attaché to a major power broker in eight months was unprecedented. He played a major role in the Marshall Plan and the rebuilding of Japan and was a key strategist in formulating policy toward the Soviets. He also played a major role in launching the CIA’s covert operations, which he later described as “my life’s greatest error.” He left the State Department in 1959 but was called back as an advisor to LBJ; then he quit both Johnson and the war and disappeared into Princeton for many years until his twilight gig at Harvard that ended in 1997.
“You need to find someone younger,” said Andy. “Why not hang out in bars and not cemeteries?”
“I don’t hang out at cemeteries.”
“Well, that’s a start.”
“I don’t hang out.”
“I’m telling you, Daph. Getting a phone will change things.”
She couldn’t get over how the steward of the twentieth century seemed so delighted to have met her. She was glad to learn that he’d been friends with Bucky Fuller—they were both Unitarians, had gone on a lecture tour together in 1980. She learned that Linus was left a widower in 1999 by his wife of many years, was an amateur poet and former competitive birder.
Given this state of mind, she wasn’t all that surprised when she got a call in the middle of November, at the precise moment Andy advised her that a phone would change things.
“We’ve admitted an elderly man to Mount Auburn Hospital,” said the voice. “He collapsed up the street at the cemetery. No identification on him, but he had this phone with a totally wacko keypad. Somehow I’ve managed to dial a number in memory. Yours.”
Being unsurprised was not the same as being eager and willing.
“Are you there?” asked the voice.
She was still looking at Linus and the Slovaks. “Is he dying?”
“I’m not sure,” he replied. “Want me to ask him?”
She couldn’t think of anything to do except inform the voice who his patient was, adding, “I’m on my way.”
It sounded ridiculous—I’m on my way, like a flat-rate fixer, your friend in the Syrian Dessert or the strapping Dutch vanguard of a U.N. delegation. I’m on my way—like she traveled with Mary Poppins’s carpetbag.
She caught the 73 bus from Harvard Square and stood for the short ride. At the open stretch of Charles beyond Memorial Drive she noticed two teams of rowers racing in the same direction, as if trying to reach Linus first. She thought of the most famous line from his most famous speech: “Victory that is vainglorious is victory squandered. We must render benevolence not merely for reasons of morality, but for the self-serving objective of preventing the vanquished from again having recourse to villainy.”
Once she’d cleared the checkpoints to the newly identified celebrity, she was directed to a four-bed room—three of the beds empty and stripped—and an old man who looked surprisingly good given the number of puncture sites needed for the clumps of tubing. After a few moments of standing there, she greeted his blinking eyes with “Hey, you.”
He clumsily gave her his cold hand. As she took it she wondered if he thought she was someone else.
“Where’s your friend Mathilde when you really need her?” she asked.
“In Brrr,” he whispered and paused to start again. “She is in Bruges, I’m afraid.”
“Listening to Brahms no doubt.”
He chuckled and coughed in succession. “Non-stop,” he managed to say, “like a teenager.” Then he closed his eyes again.
“You should keep your eyes closed when you talk to me,” she said, “if it feels better.”
He smiled with his eyes shut. “Augustine.”
She leaned closer. “I’ve heard of him.”
“My pride-swollen face has closed my eyes.”
A young doctor briskly entered the room and inserted herself between Daphne and Linus, placing her stethoscope on parts of his neck and chest. Daphne heard over her shoulder the voice that had addressed her on the phone, this time whispering. “I can’t believe he’s a political bigwig—or used to be.” The voice belonged to a robust bearded man—a Welsh-looking Pavarotti. “Guy like that shouldn’t be wandering around without a wallet.”
“By collapsed,” she whispered back, “did you mean unconscious?”
“Nope, but he couldn’t tell the EMTs anything—rapid heart rate, high blood pressure, shortness of breath, could hardly walk, face red, swollen ankles. Disoriented, confused.” He paused. “Need more clues?”
“Clues for what?”
“Congestive heart failure.”
“That sounds bad.”
“I’ve never seen a person that old who could come out of that alive.”
The doctor turned to Daphne, plucking the stethoscope from her ears. “We’ve contacted one of Mr. Steinbrenner’s daughters in Maine,” she said curtly. She turned again to Linus to shout cheerfully, “So much better than you were earlier! We’ll get you that Lanoxin that you must never, never forget to take. We’ve left several messages for your doctor in Lewiston.”
When she left the room, the Pavarotti nurse gave Linus’s leg an affectionate jiggle, as if to mock the apparatus gripping his ankles at timed intervals. “I’ll go get your buddies.”
Daphne waited for him to leave so she could laugh. “Buddies?”
Linus said nothing, so she tried another approach. “It looks like I’m not the first on the scene.”
“I read that in a murder investigation,” he began slowly, “the person to discover the body is always the prime suspect.”
“And that would be. . . ?”
“You need”—he cleared his throat—“you need to conduct an investigation.”
“You need to take your medications,” she said, moving closer to the bed. “You also need to stop walking outside alone. And most of all you need to enter your daughters’ numbers into your phone.”
She nodded at the object on the bedside trolley-tray, its metallic surface also an unmistakable shade of blue. He smiled.
“Linus, I’m serious. I barely know you and it pains me to see you like this.”
“You will have to tell them all I feel fine.”
“Yes, you—our arbiter elegantiae.”
She suddenly sensed a presence behind her that felt nowhere near the girth of the departed nurse and turned to behold a turtle. For all practical purposes a man—also very elderly and even more pink in complexion than Linus—but the absence of a discernible chin would seem to permit easy retraction of the man’s small head into its matching torso. He wore a navy beret and the kind of large round glasses favored by cartoon turtles. His belted olive raincoat was a few sizes too large but somehow did not hang on him; something kept it buoyantly the shape of one of those postal service drop boxes.
She moved so that Linus could see his visitor. He did not seem surprised, pleasantly or otherwise. “Daphne Passerine,” he said, his voice somewhat improved, “meet Elijah Tweeten.”
Here was another name she knew. The fashion critic, the modernist architect—they, too, wore glasses favored by cartoon turtles, but with them the overall gestalt did not say “turtle.” She hadn’t known that Elijah Tweeten the literary critic was the result of this sort criteria, but he gave the impression of having worn this style of glasses for a very long time.
“I know you, too,” she said excitedly as she shook his hand. “Required reading I often faked.”
“I cannot absolve you from that venal sin,” he began, his voice musical yet anchored by a Robert Mitchum huskiness. “They took that power away when I botched tenure. I CAN, however, validate your parking.” Or maybe the huskiness was of a Rodney Dangerfield variety, she thought, for the literary critic had a joke-teller’s cadence.
“I should clarify,” she told him, “that the reading I faked happened before I was free from curricular requirements. Later on I read your book on Hardy—twice.”
“First for love and then for money?”
“Something like that.”
“Elijah,” Linus began, “this is the Daphne I spoke about.”
“Oh, that Daphne!”
“Yes, that Daphne,” said Linus.
She tried to look demure. “Not to be confused with the house Daphne.”
“She’s a clever sloganeer,” Linus continued, making no attempt to hide his pride. “Like Thomas Paine.”
“So where’s your literature?” Elijah asked, his eyes searching the room.
“That curséd place where dragons be!”
Linus lifted his arm—this time successfully—to point to his head. “Hats off, please.”
“I, sir, am a continental,” his friend replied, “and overmore have been warned by Bavarian scalp specialists to avoid rogue chills to the hairless follicles—of which I have many.”
At that prompting the Welsh Pavarotti reappeared to usher in yet another elderly man, also stooped but seemingly a mile high nonetheless, wearing a mile-high overcoat to match. Lanky even in these much-advanced years, the man called to mind Ichabod Crane given the length of wrist protruding from each of his coat sleeves—an Ichabod who’d wisely sought alternate routes through Sleepy Hollow and as such managed to age and develop a stoop from a lifetime of bending under those eighteenth-century doorways. This man had a beautiful aquiline nose, however, and no wrinkles. His face suggested the whiteness of statuary.
“I told them not to drag me up here unless you kicked the bucket!” he shouted. “I even brought the pennies for your eyes!”
“Dimes!” Elijah shouted. “Dimes, my friend, on account of them eyes being beady and little.”
Daphne whispered to the nurse, who had sidled in behind her, “So who called them?”
He shrugged. “They just showed up,” he whispered back in a baritone that made redundant any effort at whispering. “Quite a pair—or I guess with the patient that’d be trio.”
“Brio?” asked Elijah, springing to alert. “Who said brio?”
Daphne laughed. “I don’t think people even know that word anymore.”
“Simon Cooper Frost,” announced Linus, his voice noticeably more stable, “this is Daphne Passerine.”
“Yes,” the mile-high man said brusquely, reaching to shake her hand, “the Mount Auburn Daphne.”
She recognized the name of Linus’s second buddy as the eminent MIT economist, but, unlike with Elijah Tweeten, she didn’t feel entitled to joke about it.
“And the Flying Dutchman?” Linus asked Simon.
It had not occurred to her that knowing Linus Steinbrenner could lead to meeting one famous intellectual after another, just like it had not occurred to her that there were so many old men loose on the streets of Cambridge.
“I’m going to have to bust up the party in a few to grab some blood,” the Welsh Pavarotti announced, both arms raised like a politician attempting to show that he’d embrace everyone on the dais if that were possible. Daphne already thought of him as Big Nurse on account of his big clogs. “But I’ll leave you folks to gab for now.”
A moment after his withdrawal, a hulking presence darkened the doorway. “Hulking” and “darkened” could well constitute overstatement, Daphne thought, but because men of this man’s apparent age generally do not elicit such terms, hyperbole seemed allowable.
He was not as tall as Simon Cooper Frost but neither was he even remotely stooped. He had fine, wispy, flyaway locks and a slightly angry countenance. His snow-white head of hair seemed to radiate the gold of a former blondness. “I quote from Charles Lamb in a letter to Southey,” he declared in a voice as voluminous as his body. “ ‘Anything awful makes me laugh. I misbehaved once at a funeral.’ ” And then came the booming “Ha!”
The room required a moment to rebound from this assault and appreciate the humor—not just in what Lamb wrote to Southey but in the hulking man’s strange accent.
“I quote from Evelyn Waugh,” Elijah shouted, futilely attempting to match his predecessor. “‘Your actions, and your action alone, determines your worth.’ ”
Linus, who obviously saw no novelty in his buddies or their quotes, continued workmanlike with the introductions. “Jan Kindermans, it is time you met Daphne Passerine.”
“Much talk about you!” the hulking man bellowed, extending his arm like a lance. After reaching to shake his hand, she realized the crushing grip belonged to a renowned theologian she had assumed long dead.
Within the ensuing silence she noticed Simon Cooper Frost holding Linus’s phone. She pointed and smiled at Linus, “I see that someone else likes your golden calf.”
“That is his own,” Linus replied, nodding toward the blue object that bad been obscured by a facecloth on the tray. Something about the way the eyes of the other three men suddenly lit on Linus’s phone reminded her of the seconds before a saloon shootout. As Linus reached for the device, Elijah Tweeten and Jan Kindermans conducted a rummaging of their person—delicate in the former case, gruff in the latter—and then, in unison, all four held up what appeared to be the same phone, like surfers holding up sweating bottled beverages in old magazine ads.
“But you,” Jan said sternly, pointing his phone at Linus as if it were death-ray weaponry. “You’ve been placing the call without us!”
Linus turned his face from his accuser, closed the phone, and raised his arm, hand out to indicate STOP. The others closed their phones as well.
“What call?” Daphne asked, looking at Linus and then the others.
“Daphne,” said Elijah, “I believe it’s time for our promenade to the cafeteria.”
“But you all have the same strange phone.”
The eminent economist and the flying Dutchman each wore stoic expressions of noncompliance that reminded Daphne of lions guarding the gate.
“Tea for two,” Elijah said, “and two for tea.”
“You have to tell me why,” she persisted.
Her life had already absorbed its share of pedestrian mysteries—like who on earth were these Helix people who paid her salary. She felt she couldn’t accommodate any more.
“Me for you,” Elijah continued, lifting his elbow for her to take, “and you for me.”
She accepted his elbow but refused to be led away. “How long have you had those phones?”
“Daphne needs to step outside alone for a moment,” Simon said, moving forward to pull her arm away from Elijah’s. “Elijah, we need to consult with you in here first.”
“I’m afraid you all need to step out for a minute so I can get some blood,” Big Nurse announced, pushing his cart of vials and tubes and hard glass things.
Daphne stared at the cart and its rattling contents. The two tall men reluctantly cleared a path, and Linus reached out a liver-spotted hand for Daphne to take. “The arbiter elegantiae, my dear,” he said gently. “We shall reconvene shortly.”
Daphne touched Linus’s skin only briefly before it happened—that same awful feeling she’d had in the room with Victor Slocum’s seventeen thousand dead warblers. It was happening again—a total replay of the realization that, yes, you are inhabiting this place that people have tried to make tolerable with mauve walls and rose speckled floors, but in the end you will be leaving without something—not your wallet or your sunglasses or your car keys but something that will be taken away in several directions. Spilled blood, disturbed organs, wayward tissue. You will leave something behind and someone will mop up. The line between organic and inorganic will be determined behind your back, behind your knowing, and the only reality you have now is words—what you can make of them and what you can’t. And what you can’t make of them is everything, like a name. The name is gone and there’s only X, the variable representing all of the places the name might have been but no longer is.