“Do you know that song?” Elijah Tweeten asked a dozen or so yards into his shuffle down the corridor.
He meant “Tea for Two,” picking up where he’d left off in Linus’s room. In the interim Daphne had run to a restroom, splashed away the sweat on her brow, and reappeared after Linus’s blood had been carted away.
She nodded. “That’s when the Lawrence Welk tap dancers would throw down the sand.”
He made a face. “It appears that you haven’t heard the Joe Mooney version: Do you long for oolong like I long for oolong, baby?”
Like the diplomat, the critic was slight, especially without his drop-box raincoat. Holding his arm, Daphne felt she might break him in two if she suddenly decided to scratch her ear. “You sound like a born entertainer, Mr. Tweeten.”
“Call me Elijah, please—but never Eli, or you will be summarily disinherited, excommunicated, and deconstructed by the IRS.”
“Elijah,” she repeated slowly. “I may need some time to break it in. I didn’t grow up being chummy with my parents’ friends. It was always Mr. This and Mrs. That.”
“Well, you’re our chum now.”
She didn’t know what to say to that. Instead she asked, “Would you like to be known for your work on Hardy or Larkin or both?”
“I’m already known,” he said. “Primarily as an old sod.”
“That was a pretty lame question, wasn’t it?”
“Is it compulsive, your need to ask questions?”
“I have to,” she rationalized, “because you’re a literary luminary, I’m a paid question-asker, and I’m holding your arm in an elevator.”
“All right,” he began, “Hardy or Larkin or Laurel and Hardy?”
He actually resembled what she recalled of Philip Larkin—or at least he could have at one time. She felt at ease with him. She sensed a soul for whom self-abnegation was an elite vocation. Such people tend to cluster together in dark corners, like billiard balls.
“What about Daphne Passerine?” he pressed. “Hardy or Larkin? Nineteenth or twentieth? For here or to go?”
“Yes to all.”
“So how many times did you read my Larkin surprise?”
She shook her head. “I admire his poetry, but I don’t have the stomach for his life. The xenophobia, the sexual hang-ups, the loneliness.”
He nodded. “He certainly was the guy in the raincoat.”
“Nothing could make him happy.”
This made him laugh. “But you were able to digest Hardy twice,” he said, “in the way that cows do.” He quickly added, “Not, my dear, that I am likening you to a cow.”
“Oh, I like cows,” she told him. “You can compare me to a cow any time you want. Just be careful about comparing me to certain people.”
“I see your reasoning and raise you twenty on the logic. Sartre chose not to say ‘Hell is other bovines.’ ”
In the cafeteria the pair was pointed to a box of Lipton tea bags next to a hot water carafe when Elijah informed a man with a mop, “We would each like a cup of tea.” They had poured out the water and navigated themselves to a table when Elijah asked, “So, my dear, are you married, en famille, engaged, the mistress of a count?”
“None of those things,” she replied, dunking the teabag. “I guess I’m alone.”
She thought for a moment. “I hereby declare under solemn oath that I am indeed alone.”
She shrugged. “We’re not all that interesting to be with each other so intensely. You run out of worthwhile things to say after four hours. An entire weekend? All those British novels where guests arrive with their servants. No wonder Edwardians had affairs and shot each other.”
“A misanthropette-in-the-making,” he said, satisfied. “That explains the wariness about Larkin.”
She looked down at the teabag floating dead in the water. “Over the past two years, time for me has been a blur—one long, continual streak of white light.”
“You’ve just described my entire life after fifty.”
“I’ll take the quiet life,” she said, looking away. “No alarms and no surprises.”
He shook his head. “After last September, I’m afraid that option is off the table. The alarms are happening daily. You need, young lady, to perfect your aptitude for En garde!”
It was strange being called out as a sideliner, a recluse, a Luddite by a very old man—first with Linus and now his buddy.
“I can’t handle the speed of the modern world,” she told him.
He laughed. “Not even as the mistress of a count?”
“Me!” she cried. “Why are we talking about my horribly uneventful life?”
“You are a biographer and sloganeer I am told. That makes you fair game for what inquiring minds want to know. I myself have ventured into biography. Don’t you be slamming the trade.”
“I look up things about people,” she confessed, “cobble together data. I meet them and verify that they are who they say they are because they say the same things to me that they’ve said to interviewers in all of the documents I’ve downloaded. I listen to them—that’s the gist of my talent. There is no limit to how much people can talk about themselves regardless of how little they have accomplished. In fact, the less they’ve contributed, the more they have to say.”
“And what prepared you for this stunning vocation?”
“Prepared me?” she said with wonder. “Being unemployed I guess.”
“Ah-ha! You studied literature then.”
She laughed. “As a matter of fact I did.”
“At Columbia by any chance?”
She shook her head. “You taught there for a long time. Do you miss New York?”
He had turned pensive. “I miss the memory of New York, the lost part it’s become stylish to mourn.” He sighed. “I miss the omnipresence of Pandora.”
His pensive was now giving way to sad; Daphne needed to do something cheerful.
“So who do you have here to compensate?”
It took him a moment to answer. “Why, the guys of course,” he said with thespian flair. “And I’m staying indefinitely with the Ludenberrys—the West Cambridge Ludenberrys. Though I suppose their being the West Cambridge Ludenberrys is common knowledge—like schoolchildren knowing the chicken dance.”
She smiled but needed reassuring.
“Does Linus have anyone like the West Cambridge Ludenberrys to make sure he’s OK?”
“My friend will have to reinstate Gwen, his caretaker. Very nice woman. Video game aficionado. He let her go some weeks ago.”
“Why did he do that?”
He slapped his palms on the table and tried to effect the incredulous gaze of a Warner Brothers cartoon animal—Wylie E. Coyote with his eyeballs folding out like a backward periscope. “Why, he often doesn’t THINK right because he’s an old man! I thought you might have noticed!”
“No one should be alone,” she said.
“But you just told me you were.”
“I don’t count.”
“You are the only living person to have read a book of mine more than once,” he said. “You have to count.”
She tried to mimic his cartoon incredulity. “You must have read your books more than once!”
“I said living person.”
She shook her head. “I don’t know if I’m up to carrying that title.”
“You, young lady, strike me as possessing the correct irony content to qualify as a Larkin cocktail.”
She laughed. “One part irony to two parts misery?”
“You forgot the bitters, my dear. One part irony, one part bitters, and then I suppose it’s a pinch of misery.”
When the two returned to Linus’s room, Elijah announced, “Ms. Daphne has made a full and splendid recovery from her sudden ghastly attack of the dreaded lurgee.”
Linus’s leonine guardians were seated on either side of his bed. Each wore an expression of dissenting afterthought; it was clear that negotiations had been attempted but had failed.
Jan Kindermans stood abruptly to yield his seat to Daphne—or more accurately, to point to it and demand that she take it. He reminded her of the Ghost of Christmases Yet to Come pointing at the headstone and demanding that Scrooge read it. By the time she sat down, he was already menacingly shoving another chair toward the negotiating table of Linus’s bed.
“Daphne,” Linus began, “we have a proposal to make, and I would suggest someone shut that door.” She was startled at how much better he looked and sounded. He was a ninety-three-year-old who’d fallen to the ground on a cold day, was thrown on a stretcher and then laid out to be prodded and intubed, and now on the very same day was back to running the Helsinki Accords.
As Elijah shuffled over to close the door, Daphne was emboldened to pick up where she’d left off an hour ago. “60 Minutes would be busting down that door if Morley Safer knew about the four of you with the same funny phone.”
More silence. Elijah had dropped his slight body into chair number three and Jan was in the throes of procuring a fourth for himself.
“You have to admit it’s quite a story,” she pressed. “I mean, it can’t be just me.”
“I’m afraid that it is just you,” said Linus with a smile.
The theologian’s seating himself prompted Simon Cooper Frost to rise, claiming the floor. “I’ll be blunt, Daphne,” he began forcefully. “We have each lost a great love. We have that in common with each other and half the world.”
He paused, and the four looked at Daphne.
“You mean this is a support group?”
“More like a defenestration group,” said Elijah.
“We have a name for ourselves,” Simon said, “Das Blaue-Fischreiher-Quartett.”
“Or,” Elijah interjected, “for the non-Teutons among us, Blue Heron Quartet.”
“We met,” Simon continued, “in 1972 in Montreux. Each of us was there for a different reason. Well, not quite so—Linus and I knew each other professionally and were attending different facets of the same conference.”
“Agro-business in the Pacific Rim,” Linus added.
“And I, of course, was on the lam from the IRS,” Elijah quipped.
The theologian shot him a stern look. “Elijah, Elijah, your chariot awaits!”
“There was a chamber music concert by an Austrian ensemble,” Simon continued. “I believe it was organized for the attendees of that particular conference, most of whom were American.”
“No global business without the Americans!” Jan shouted.
“We each attended,” Simon went on, “and I must emphasize here that to be in Montreux at that time and be listening to chamber music rather than Dexter Gordon might well be considered a crime against both humanity and the Verve label.”
“Which, as we know,” added Elijah, “are one and the same.”
“This group,” Simon continued, “Das Blaue-Fischreiher-Quartett, had a moderately ambitious repertoire.”
“Bartok and Shostakovich!” Jan shouted.
“And luckily,” Linus said to Daphne with a smile, “no Brahms.”
“Yes,” Simon concurred, “no Brahms. And thus the recital went. When the group had finished with the program, the audience rustling papers to the yes-or-no question of an encore, one member explained that the absence of Gerhard—apparently the cellist was a stand-in—owed to the tragedy of his young wife’s sudden death. He announced that the group wished to play something in memory—” Here he paused, lowering his head and putting his hand to his chin. “Something in memory of Uta.”
Daphne was struck by the way he said Uta—like a word from some arcane language, phenomenally porous in its scant three letters. Each man wore an expression suggesting that this Uta had once been his Uta.
“They played Elgar’s ‘Sospiri,’ ” Linus said gently. “Sighs.”
“If you know the piece, Daphne,” Elijah offered, no longer the wise guy, “well, then you know.” He looked like he had more to say, but he turned his head away.
“I don’t think,” Linus continued, “I don’t think any of us quite recovered from that performance, that feeling of loss.”
“I myself had not realized the strength and insidious endurance of emptiness,” Simon added. “Almost thirty years after the fact for me.”
Even Jan’s angry face had turned submissive.
“Here we were,” Simon continued, “four men, relative strangers to each other, and I suppose at that time strangers with conflicting agendas.”
“It was the spectacle of the tears,” Linus said.
“Spectacle,” Jan repeated somberly.
“Pornographic almost,” Linus continued. “In our culture at that time, in the man’s world that was politics and commerce, you did not see that kind of emotion expressed . . . casually—though cathartically is probably the better word.”
“Dogs only have eyes for other dogs,” Elijah offered, “babies only for other babies, sobbing men only for the like.”
Daphne sat there, her shoulders rounded in stupefied humility, thinking how it was too late to request permission not to know this.
“So we went to a hotel bar!” Jan shouted—the net effect of an icicle crashing through a windshield.
“I don’t think I’ve drunk like that since,” Elijah added.
“And we’ve remained friends these many years,” Simon declared.
“And THAT was difficult!” Jan exclaimed.
Linus smiled. “Worthy of the Nobel.”
Their story made Daphne think back to her Grand Canyon vacation. She’d met three women from New Jersey who’d lost their husbands in the World Trade Center attacks, and one had recently undergone a month of radiation treatment for breast cancer. They met years earlier when they completed a half-course Iron Man triathlon in Colorado, so they already had a lot in common when their husbands were murdered by terrorists. But these women were upbeat and had robust appetites. They talked about doing a full Iron Man; they talked about running shoes and bioidentical hormone replacement therapy; they called themselves The Supremes.
“The onward march of time!” Jan shouted.
“Yes,” Simon concurred. “Flash forward to the start of this year. At the start of this year, Daphne—in the aftermath of our national tragedy—we committed ourselves to a search.”
Linus nodded slowly. “Hence Das Blaue-Fischreiher-Quartett.”
“Our search,” Simon continued, “to put it simply, was to find a way in our collectivity to communicate with the loves we have lost.”
“Mesmerism!” Jan blurted out with amusement. “Does that scare you, girl? Mesmerism!”
“I believe that spiritualism,” added Elijah, “is the touchy-feely word.”
The theologian was correct in his presumption; it did scare Daphne.
“Communicate how?” she asked.
Jan lifted the phone in his hand like it was an Olympic torch and then reached over to slam it down next to Linus’s.
“Our search,” Linus began, “is a metaphysical question and has a theoretical basis.”
“Eschatological verification!” yelled Jan.
“I’m afraid,” Linus continued, “that if we try to explain any further at this point you will become more confused.”
She felt like a child skewered to a chair in the principal’s office, lost in the silent mantra Don’t call my parents Don’t call my parents Don’t call my parents. Who’d want to be found out to be in cahoots with such a crew?
“So what’s the proposal?” she asked.
Simon stared at her. “We would like to hire you and your vocational skills to keep the minutes for our meetings—once a week, a couple hours at a time, they are, or were. We have been markedly delinquent.”
“Much more than keeping the minutes,” Linus interrupted.
“You mean you want me to be your secretary?” she asked.
“We want you to disseminate the discussion points,” he replied, “make sense of things. Our meetings have greatly deteriorated as of late.”
“A shambles!” Jan shouted.
“We need you to listen and put our collective’s affairs in order,” said Linus. “So in that capacity you will be the arbiter elegantiae.”
“What does that term mean?” she asked. “I did look it up. The Roman context doesn’t seem flattering.”
“I suppose my use is idiosyncratic,” said Linus, “but I assure you, Daphne, I bestow it only with reverence.”
“Das Blaue-Fischreiher-Quartett already have a secretary anyway,” Simon pointed out, “secretary and treasurer, I suppose, for want of any better word to describe what my son does.” To Daphne he added, “I will have Trygve see that you’re paid a stipend we believe is generous.”
What could she say to this? Were they aware that communicating with the dead had become the ken of former ballroom dancing instructors? How could a theologian with Tourette’s-caliber outbursts go for something like this—or Linus and his quotations from Paul and Augustine or Elijah awaiting his fiery chariot?
“I guess I accept the job,” she said after practically no delay whatsoever.
“Bully!” shouted Jan.
“You have a test to pass first,” Simon informed her. “We shall enlist your services if you can name the five aspects of classical rhetoric.”
She was lost on this one. “I don’t know.”
“Best make a guess,” urged Elijah.
“Faith, hope, and charity?”
“That’s three,” said the economist.
“And the WRONG three!” the theologian bellowed.
“Indeed,” the critic declared, “as an infraction, being wrong trumps non-numeric alignment every time.”
She shook her head.
Elijah made an amused squawk. “You studied literature for God’s sake!”
“Linus will be the arbiter on this issue,” said Simon. “Is she in despite this failure to perform?”
Linus looked at Daphne and smiled.
“So what are they?” she asked.
Simon cleared his throat. “Invention, arrangement, memory, delivery, style.”
The four stared at her as if the word string were a code she was supposed to have remembered after swallowing.
“Do those five things have anything to do with Das Blaue—with your Quartet?”
“As I told you before, Daphne,” Linus replied, “you will know soon enough.”
Soon, she thought; soon was the right word for him to be using. What would no doubt be happening soon was the ending of his and his buddies’ lives.
As she approached the elevators she heard a voice call out to her from down the hall. “You keep those dudes in line.”
It was Big Nurse in his big clogs. She stared at him for a moment before the doors dinged open. She looked at her Alice watch that had stopped at 3:01. Then she entered the car to take her to the lobby.
On the walk home she thought about many things—like that such intense longing cannot be sustained over a lifetime. Look at the Grand Canyon Supremes, she thought; they, like alchemists, had already transformed highly publicized loss into ironclad strength.
Something made her remember back three decades to the day that Mr. Dowling performed magic with a yellow bird. It was at a birthday party for Jack, and her godfather was entertaining the children with a bird made of a small painted pinecone and synthetic yellow feathers. It was the ultimate in trinketry, yet Daphne coveted the prize that Mr. Dowling kept making disappear, wanting the bird with every shred and fiber of her being.
Thinking back, she tried to understand the immense value in that bird—perhaps because it had been there and then was gone? Her godfather told her that she must think of a hiding place and try to focus all of her desire onto that spot, and that if she wanted the bird badly enough, it would magically reappear in that place, and then she could keep it forever. “X marks the spot,” he told her, “the spot of something you really want. You have to concentrate hard, Daphne; you have to concentrate on that X. If you can see an X where there is nothing, your wish will come true.”