Less than a month after five of Eugenie’s phones had been laid to rest, the war in Iraq began.
Eugenie’s Winkle was paralyzed from the single bullet wound, but the tragedy only made him more lethal. Although witnesses said he saw and even seemed to recognize the assailant whom the media had come to call La Femme Nikita, he insisted his assassination attempt was bankrolled by that master soldier of fortune, George Soros. Winkle in a wheelchair had become even more aggressive—like the bad guy flushed into the sewer with radioactive waste, to emerge unstoppable by anyone outside a Marvel comic book.
On a picture-perfect afternoon in June, however, things were not so bleak. Daphne found herself at Mount Auburn waiting at this special bench for Elijah and Jan. Even when she was alone these days she wasn’t by herself. She had adopted Queequeg—eighty pounds worth, assessed by a jittery veterinary specialist at Tufts as having negligible sight in his left eye. She called him Bucky. He liked to lean heavily into your legs whenever you sat. Being that he was now the opposite of a seeing-eye dog, she brought him places she would not have thought to bring a sighted dog. And most places were glad to accept him, even the cemetery. A guard gave Daphne an orange sticker to apply to his collar, identifying him as a Visiting Service Dog.
This was surely the day of days to be here, the robins posing majestically with those fabulous Edwardian bosoms—or else running chest-forward past each other without looking sideward, like young ballerinas trying to be swans. There were a lot of white butterflies suddenly; apparently someone’s God had decided to open the attic windows just this once. And claques of starlings in thick grass, like big game hunters in the bush. The lawns had certainly got on, but who’d want to mow when everything was this lush? It was the same aversion that kept a mother putting off that first trip to the barber—as if this could prevent baby from turning to boy.
She glanced down at the blue watch that had stopped ticking at 12:01. They would arrive together, Elijah and Jan, if they made it here alive—the former having moved in with the latter. Not long after the funerals, the Ludenberrys left Cambridge for San Francisco, rendering Elijah homeless. Luckily there was Jan’s gray Gothic house, which had become a new conquest for the order-making work of the Anguiano girls. The consensual reorg was overseen by Martha Downey and occasionally by Ingrid, even though Ingrid, at seventy-nine, was at the threshold of being overseen herself.
Jan’s house acquired further younger blood via Gwen Counts’s eleven-year-old grandson, Darien, a piano prodigy looking for something to play on. Gwen had come over when Daphne was helping arrange things in Elijah’s new room, a former junk-filled study on the first floor. Jan made a fuss of pulling off the tarp to show her the instrument, knocking over a floor lamp that hit and smashed a vase containing mummified flowers.
Gwen shook her head at the piano’s sorry condition. “It’s like my granddad’s tractor with a beech tree growing right through it.”
Jan’s white hair flared out at both sides as he pondered the decrepit state of his domain. “We will have to have it tuned of course.”
She nodded. “He’s the only kid anyone knows who’ll take the piano over hip-hop. Maybe he’ll be the next Ray Charles.”
Jan shot her a short-tempered look. “Is he blind?”
She made a face. “Of course he’s not blind.”
“We’ll then he can’t be the next Ray Charles. But he can be the next Fats Waller.”
“He’s not fat either.”
“The next Art Tatum then! The next Glen Gould!”
“Glen Gould,” she said, nodding. “The boy likes Glen.”
Jan had recently taken a fall with Spinoza, his new long-haired dachshund, and had been using a menacing cane that he insisted was temporary. “If you didn’t want to fall,” Elijah asked, “why’d you buy a breed of dog known for being permanently underfoot?”
Daphne felt like she had known the two of them forever, since the time both were young. There were banner advertisements for the cemetery hanging prominently on the gate in a few places on Mount Auburn Street: Beautiful, Timeless . . . and Still Available. Once when Daphne was driving Elijah and Jan home, Jan pointed to the banner, jabbing his finger repeatedly onto the Caddy’s passenger window: “Just like you, Daphne!”
The ghostwriter said the era of the Quartet would die with the Quartet, and that she ought to accept that. But she had a hard time taking advice from someone with so many secrets. She thought of him as not longed for this world despite the fact that he seemed so up on modern espionage and intelligence. Everything he loved—secrecy—was on the outs and all that he loathed—hero worship—was reaching new heights of fetishism. He had definite ideas for fixing the world—switch to a flat income tax, legalize all narcotics, take out certain Russians in Moscow, Chechnya, and the Ukraine (one of them Putin). Still, he had become her friend.
Same for the nurse with clogs, who liked to try out jokes on her. He hoped she could help him resolve a joke he’d been working on for ten years. “Woman on the Upper West Side—OK, so it’s my grandmother Norma who likes to see matinees with her buddies at the Lincoln Plaza, which her friend Ruth calls ‘the Holocaust Six.’ Woman on the Upper West Side can’t accept that her husband of fifty years has died—my grandfather Maurie always insisted on driving in Manhattan even if it meant that no one ever saw him at dinner or the movies, weddings or funerals. Getting the car onto the ramp of the parking garage took longer than the running time of Sholem Aleichem: Pull My Finger. Woman on the Upper West Side can’t accept that her husband of fifty years has died, so she continues to tell people he’s parking the car. ‘Norma, where’s Maurie?’ ‘Parking the car.’ Come to find out, Norma had two husbands she was married to for fifty years—one on the Upper West and one on the Upper East. It worked out well because they were both always parking cars—and now she can’t accept that both have died. The punchline has to contain ‘alternate side parking.’ ” He sighed heavily after stating his case. “I just need some extra words to make it work.”
Both he and the ghostwriter had wanted to be part of the odd delegation that traveled to Lake Michigan in May to disperse the ashes. Jan and Elijah had decided it for her—he needed to be set free on that fateful body of water where Bucky had committed ego-cide. Dr. Glazer placed himself in the center of the action so that he could claim to have been the reason for a happy ending in the book he was writing. But Daphne didn’t care since he had offered to cover everyone’s airfare out of his advance—Paul and his new wife, Andy and his wife, Jan, Elijah, Big Nurse, and the ghostwriter.
She didn’t want Jan and Elijah to make the trip, but they couldn’t be dissuaded. The ghostwriter had the connections to hire out a small tour boat. “Here lies one whose name was writ on water”—it was Elijah, bundled in his drop-box raincoat, who quoted Keats. Daphne pulled strands of hair off her face to see the white dust from the canister stream away from her in the frenzied wind.
It was on the frigid lake that she realized how much she’d taken Andy for granted—he and his wife who were the reason she was alive. That night in 2001 they’d gone out to see a movie, any movie, because it was so damned hot. After Legally Blonde, they looked for something to sop up more dew-point time and settled on cannoli from Mike’s Pastry. Why on earth did they think to bring one to Daphne? They knew where she lived on Rose Street but had never been to the apartment. It was pure coincidence they knocked on the door. She’d left on lights and the stereo—who was there to worry about an electric bill?—and the front door unlocked.
Before the Lake Michigan pilgrimage Daphne had met the killer, the man on the motorcycle. His name was Lawrence Sanford but people called him Sandy, “like the Dodger pitcher” he pointed out when it seemed there was nothing else to fill the space between them. His life, she learned from listening, amounted to one blow after another—none of them recovered from. Sandy Sanford would never make it onto a billboard paid for by Live Every Day, but he did say he was sorry.
Daphne visited her mother and Ford in their fancy neighborhood in Westport, where they ate only vegetables and fresh fish. Ford had a white brush cut and a perpetual look of frustration. He’d been estranged from both of his sons, and now—because of Daphne’s overture, he said—was thinking of calling and “tearing down the wall.” He also offered to fly her to and from Connecticut anytime on either of his two planes. The woman Jack loved now spent, by her own estimation, half of her life in the sky—with another man, true, but still off of the earth.
With the help of new friends and old, Daphne had come to see that there were possibilities everywhere even if they weren’t meant for you. Even Larkin—fool-averse, easily-nauseated, and bitter to the end—had things to say about regeneration:
Yet still the unresting castles thresh
In fullgrown thickness every May.
Last year is dead, they seem to say,
Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.
Why do we return to the past again and again and again? When we die we all become the same age—maybe even the same person. For the living, however—we’re always suffering the inequity of that moment of departure.
She’d been afraid of growing so much older than he’d ever be. He would remain young and full of potential as she grew notched and gnarled by all the things she failed to accomplish, by squandering the time he’d been denied. Still, the way the world works is: you look for survivors before bagging the dead.
There was also what the ghost in the machine had to say—that we return to the past when we can no longer remember our previous selves who have died. And there was the exquisite truth suggested by Elijah—that imagination makes existence possible, that you will only find consolation if you’ve found poetry.
When her phone rang—the kind of phone everyone had—she put it to her ear as Bucky leaned into her leg. There was brief silence, but she was not at all surprised by what the voice had to say: “The most beautiful words in the English language are summer afternoon.” §