Four days after Das Blaue-Fischreiher-Quartett offered Daphne a job, Linus Steinbrenner was sent home to his apartment on Sparks Street with a rotating team of part-time nurses and the reinstatement of Gwen. All Daphne’s communication with the men was supposed to be routed through Simon’s son, Trygve, but Linus broke that rule. He phoned on New Year’s Day to propose their first meeting be at Mount Auburn Cemetery on “the Feast of the Epiphany.”
Old men at a cemetery in January was something that should never happen, but Daphne could not sway Linus against it, especially once he narrowed the rendezvous to that same bench near Willow Pond. She called Trygve each day three days before the 6th to argue for a new location, and each time he assured her that “my father’s posse” were “outward-bound old fucks.” He cut short all three brief conversations by saying it was his turn to pick up his stepson from fencing school.
On the Epiphany the cemetery was empty save for pickup flocks of dark, wintry birds. Clusters of starlings descended on the frozen ground and skulked about while anxiously eyeing one another—together but not together, like people waiting for someone to unlock the Methadone clinic. It was sunny, however—the air crisp and the sky uniformly blue.
Still, her heart went out to the naked trees; it seemed rude to stare at their exposed aberrations, limbs knotted and the knots knotted even more so, like her grandmother’s fallow clothesline that had been tied together in so many places that the rope could no longer run through the pulleys. On Central Avenue she passed a Japanese maple in whose elongated trunk she could see an Egon Schiele drawing of himself. A number of trees with similar deformities she knew quite well—like the gigantic black oak on Yarrow Path whose shocking outgrowth made it look pregnant with triplets. An implicit agreement seemed to hold that for every body interred at Mount Auburn, a tree assumed human form, for better or worse.
She thought that if she looked hard enough she could find trees resembling the forms of Das Blaue-Fischreiher-Quartett, and then almost immediately she felt sad for having no knowledge of their physiques other than that of very old men. Already she had become protective of them, even though she regretted having been drawn into their venture. But how could she have said no? They would’ve needed to find another arbiter elegantiae, and who would that be? True, Cambridge was probably thick with retired librarians—ideal candidates for the job—but so many people had no conscience, compassion, or respect—or else they had the hypocrite’s version of those things. That day at the hospital, shortly after the ask and before she headed for the elevators, Linus’s room was inundated with people—tweedy people, yes, but enough oily glad-handers of the Harvard Management Company variety that she felt treasonous leaving him at their mercy.
“What do those old guys want from you?” her brother had asked when she told him about her new job.
“They’re not guys,” she said. “They’re historical figures.”
She’d judiciously omitted the part about their wanting to communicate with the dead; neither Paul nor Andy would stay quiet for that. She instead told them that her contracted role was to help compile their collective memoirs.
When she reached the bench she found a much-yellowed napkin—small and square, the diner-dispenser kind—neatly placed under a stone. On the napkin someone had written:
A message on a napkin
is oh so very nice
I’ll bet you’ve never had one
so I write it to you twice:
A message on a napkin
is oh so very nice
The handwriting was curvaceous but not feminine; the black ink had bled around “twice.” Was this written years ago, she wondered, or was the handwriting fresh and the napkin merely old? She looked around and spied at a distance a large woman in a white puffy jacket helping Linus out of a car. She immediately ran to receive him like he was the baton in a relay race. The woman in white did not seem cordial. She sped away just as Daphne completed her leg of the relay.
“No one should drive that fast in a cemetery,” she said, out of breath.
“And I’m sure she is simultaneously placing a call,” Linus replied. “Double indemnity in the Court of Daphne.” He smiled broadly in his camel duffle coat and brown corduroy cap with earflaps. This was only the second time she’d seen him officially dressed, but she supposed that his appearance, though not outright dapper, was consistently well turned out.
“I hope that wasn’t Gwen,” she said, trying to regulate her breathing.
“Oh, no,” he replied cheerfully. “Gwen’s Epiphany would be the Macy’s One-Day Sale.”
“Linus,” she began with concern, “this cemetery is just not a good idea.” She made oblique gestures with her hands to indicate willingness to help him do something—stand, walk, play knickknack on her shoe. His response was to bend his elbows and flutter his hands to indicate fledgling wings. She shrugged and took his arm, and the two began walking down the road.
“They want me to use a cane,” he said.
“Would a cane help?”
“Miranda, when she was eight, was introduced to a hundred-year-old woman who walked with the aid of two canes. Somehow my clever daughter got the idea that you achieved this at the glorious milestone—the first cane at age fifty, the second fifty years on. Her wish at the ripe old age of eight was to live to one hundred so that she might collect her two canes.”
“Well you should at least have one then.”
He continued smiling with a slightly mocking tenderness. “Miranda just finalized her second divorce. Pity, for I liked the second fellow much more than the first. She’s living in Seville with a simpleminded music teacher; she calls him ‘my boyfriend’ even though he’s rather elderly by American standards. Judith, my other daughter, thinks the escapade is the result of Miranda’s ‘shock and denial’ at being a grandmother. This is how denial manifests itself in our time—selling special-blend teas in Seville when you’re fifty-five.”
“So who wrote this?” she asked, waving the napkin like it was a winning lottery ticket.
“I think you know.”
“But how could you when you’ve only just got here?” she asked. “Did you have someone sneak in earlier?”
“Ode on a Grecian Urn.”
“Too many riddles, Linus.”
“Remember what I told you last time we were here,” he replied. “A place where imagination is possible.”
“In any event,” she said, “I like your poem.”
“I wrote the words on the napkin,” he admitted, “but it’s not my poem.”
“You do write poetry though.”
“I emulate people who write poetry,” he explained with the elegant modesty of someone just presented with a lifetime achievement award. “Those like me who dabble—we’re mere copyists.”
“Is that what diplomats are good at?”
“Diplomats aren’t good at anything,” he said with a laugh. “That’s why they’re diplomats.”
“So there’s the bench,” Daphne said, stopping at the edge of the pavement, “but I don’t want us to walk on the grass.”
“What,” he replied, “is this France? Do you see a gendarme?”
“What I see is some snow,” she told the ninety-three-year-old man. “We might slip.”
“I might slip,” he said in correction.
“True,” she allowed, “but I would go with you.”
“I have no fear of falling,” he said cheerfully, pressing ahead, “at least not anymore.” She had no option but to spot him as a follower.
“I started writing my own poems on airplanes at night,” he began, coordinating his words with Daphne’s nervous pace, “and in those days they were indeed ‘airplanes.’ I suppose it was as a distraction, to ward off fear—small planes crashed quite often then, and not just when shot down over the Urals. I had two young daughters. 1948 to 1954—in the dark, a moral eclipse of the Earth. Historians tell you otherwise, but that is not the truth.”
As they sat on the cold bench, Daphne felt that this was the moment she ought to ask him if fear and being in the dark were the reasons he supported the war in Vietnam for so long, but she couldn’t bring herself to confrontation. Linus Steinbrenner wrote poems on airplanes because he was afraid of crashing; he worked for an administration that sent men to kill and be killed because they were afraid of communism. In retrospect all was logical and neat.
As if reading her mind, he said, “We were afraid—afraid for our ways, our drive-in theaters, our enormous tailfins, our wall-to-wall carpeting.”
This only made her think of carpet bombing—Nixon territory in her limited knowledge of contemporary warfare, but still she knew that Linus hadn’t resigned until after Walter Cronkite gave the war a thumbs-down.
“Are you OK?” she asked.
“To weigh human lives lost in relation to the yardage of broadloom retained,” he said—“how tidy.” His impatient sigh seemed out of character from the little she knew of him. “Why is it,” he began, “why is it, Daphne, that death-etched landscapes are sites of boisterous recreation rather than quiet remembrance? People picnic at Gettysburg and listen to chamber music on the lush lawns at Antietam.”
“At least people don’t picnic here,” she said after a long pause.
“They used to,” he informed her. “There were no public parks at the time Mount Auburn was laid out, so people flocked here for picnics and carriage racing.”
“We have to go,” she said firmly. “This bench is way too cold.”
He removed one of his gloves and placed his palm against the wood slabs, temporarily suppressing the shaking in his fingers. “My wife is buried here.”
She had read that Linus’s wife was buried on the coast of Maine, but this was hardly a point on which one might beg to differ.
“You must miss her after so many years together.”
“Two,” he said gently. “Two years was no time at all.”
“Your first wife?” she asked. She felt like a dunce. Of course he had a first wife. Why would there be tears at Montreux for a wife still living?
“I have outlived two wives.”
“That’s rare in our day,” she said. “Women live longer than men.”
“Not so two hundred years ago. My maternal grandfather lost three wives in childbirth.”
She tried to picture Linus’s grandfather with the three lost wives and wondered if it was any easier the third time around. Quickly she answered her thought with a prejudicial yes, for them—our unfeeling, pragmatic ancestors with their smelly beards and decades-spanning gingivitis, people for whom death provided the welcomed opportunity to restock a line item.
“Did you know,” he began, “that when he was dying of a brain tumor, George Gershwin wrote ‘Love Walked In’ and ‘Love Is Here to Stay’?”
She shook her head. “You told me the last time we were here that love can exist in death, love can thrive in death.”
“Do you remember what else I told you that day?”
Of course she did. “That you feared you were losing faith.”
“Anna died of multiple myeloma/epithelial sarcoma. That wasn’t what the doctors called it in 1938. They called it ‘Anna’s illness.’ Multiple myeloma/epithelial sarcoma appeared in a letter some pathologist sent me years later. They couldn’t save Anna, but they saved her cancer—the tissue—for researchers to fiddle with. Whatever you call it, it’s not the way anyone would want to die.”
She again shook her head.
“That day I saw you here,” he continued, “I thought you were visiting someone you’d lost. People your age come here to enjoy, to drink in, not to mourn, so for me you were a quandary, an enigma to explore. And then, before I could even make a surveyor’s assessment, there was that smile of yours.”
On cue, she smiled for the surveyor.
“I knew it was you.”
“Because you are what they call the real thing.” After a pause he added, “Come, I’ll show you Anna’s grave.”
It was east of Willow Pond that Anna Hahn Steinbrenner was buried, two roads over. This time Linus and Daphne did not stroll: he walked with intent; she anguished over his every brush with frost-glazed grass. The small headstone was white and demure, adorned by a relief sculpture of a pair of clasped hands.
“Was that your choice?” she asked.
“Ours,” he said. “It was made from a cast of our hands.”
The Brownings, she remembered, had done that. She’d read that a physician inspecting a plaster likeness made from the cast could see signs of tuberculosis in Elizabeth’s bones. She squatted to look closer at the lovers’ hands, to see if myeloma could be spied within the white stone. She pulled off her glove and reached out to touch where petty, petty nature had stolen the nail from Anna’s thumb.
“The poem on the napkin,” he said, “that was hers, Anna’s. Written to me at an automat on West 34th when I was twenty-seven.”
Oddly enough, this made perfect sense to Daphne.
“I have transcribed this poem on random napkins obsessively, the world over, my entire life. She has never ceased to consume me, body and soul. I cannot get out of bed in the morning without the thought of her. This was always very difficult for Katherine. Dearly I loved Katherine, but in a domestic way, the way of family comfort.”
Love, love, love. Daphne’s head spun with so many subtle variations thereof, like a meteorologist’s classification of clouds: cumulonimbus incus, altocumulus undulatus, cirrostratus translucidus fibratus. She sensed way too many critical intricacies for someone of her reckless disregard. She did not wish to know if there were tears in Linus’s eyes. When she stood she looked around to where they were, not at his face. “We need to go back so they can find us.”
“The group is meeting up here,” he said, “at Anna’s grave. The bench coordinates were for your convenience. They know this place.” He paused. “And they are always late.”
This distressed her. “But where will they sit?”
He laughed. “That sounds like some novel by a Turgenev contemporary.”
She smiled. “But Where Will They Sit? by Ivan Ivan Ivanov.”
He tapped his wobbly index finger against his corduroy hat: “Vocation, vocation, vocation.” Then he interrupted himself to exclaim, “I take back what I just said! Behold, the Magi at ten o’clock!”
She didn’t know if they were bearing gifts, but seventy-five percent of Das Blaue-Fischreiher-Quartett were indeed on the horizon and on foot—two towering but shaky figures flanking a sunken third toting a battered valise.
All three wore scarves—woven, nubbly vestments that hung in defiance of dispose-and-replace, relics one might see strewn across a bed at some forgotten statesman’s country estate–turned–museum: Balfour or Clemenceau, telegraphs and hunting trophies. Russian hat on the economist, herringbone cap on the theologian, signature beret on the valise-toting turtle. All she could think of was The Wizard of Oz. At any moment, monkeys might descend to carry them away.
After the exchange of greetings, Daphne appealed to reason. “It makes no sense that we’re standing here in January.”
“Anna’s here!” Jan shouted.
“Eine schönre Wangenröthe
Ist doch nur des Todes schönrer Thron.”
“But why do you need to have your meetings outside?”
“Two things, Daphne,” Simon began, clearing his throat. “First, we are not having an official meeting today. This meeting is to introduce you to Mistress Eugenie. Second, we are not staying here, for the logical reason that Mistress Eugenie is not here.”
It was becoming clear to Daphne that the withholding of critical information was an artisanal specialty of Das Blaue-Fischreiher-Quartett.
“So Mistress Eugenie’s someone who’s alive?” she asked.
“Of course,” Simon replied.
“She’s alive!” Elijah exclaimed. “Hallelujah!”
“So is she a good witch or a bad witch?”
Linus looked at his buddies with a satisfied smile. “We don’t quite know.”
“Healing goddess or broker of evil?” Elijah added like a voice from the Discovery Channel.
“As I told you before, Daphne,” Simon continued, “our group has a full agenda. Threefold it is: Sessions chez Mistress Eugenie; meetings amongst ourselves to discuss progress; visits to the cemetery.”
“Cemeteries in general or this one in particular?” she asked.
“Here!” Jan shouted. “We have to be here!”
Elijah stepped up to the plate with gallantry. “Only the second fold, my dear Ms. Daphne, requires your presence.”
The men had said no to her request to use her recorder as a backup to her transcriptions—nothing digital. She’d consented even though a voice recorder was everything in her line of work—or maybe it was just her addiction to secretly recording people’s voices that made it so. She’d respectfully done her homework by boning up on the lives of the economist and the theologian and had come ready for action with her notebook and pens, ready to take a stab at making sense of things—things like the theoretical aspects of cellular mesmerism. She’d slapped a muzzle on reason, but now her hands were cold.
Just then a bulbous black SUV pulled to an abrupt halt nearby.
“That would be the prodigal,” said Elijah.
“Simon’s son,” Linus clarified, “our driver.”
The prodigal did not get out of the idling vehicle so the group went to the prodigal. It did not surprise Daphne that Trygve Frost—at least what she could see through the window—was a big lump of a fellow, wound around the steering wheel like a bilious bus driver. She couldn’t help but wonder what he did for a living—what vocation would compel him to not only call four illustrious men “old fucks” but to make them walk to him in the cold.
Jan leaned closer to shout in Daphne’s ear, “He’s come to take you away!” She was startled but shortly realized that the theologian was teasing her. Yes, of course she would be taken away—not by a sky-full of flying monkeys but by one big lump of an earthbound monkey.
“We have a slight problem,” Trygve said, finally removing himself from the heated interior. “Accommodations-wise.”
“Yes,” his father said harshly, “capacity.”
“I can sit in the back,” Daphne offered.
“I don’t think you want to do that,” Trygve said warily. “I have a dog.”
“He has a dog,” Elijah repeated.
“And not just any dog!” Jan shouted.
“An especially hairy, muddy, and smelly dog!” Simon snapped angrily.
“Or perhaps an especially dog-like dog,” Linus suggested.
The Keynesian economist was obviously disappointed or frustrated or something pretty close—she couldn’t pinpoint the precise emotion that probably had little to do with the offstage dog and a lot to do with his son.
Like Linus Steinbrenner, Simon Cooper Frost was a man of the century whose reputation was now in eclipse—in his case because, in this free-market universe, no one dared believe that government played a central role in managing the economy. Known for his urbane liberalism, dashing good looks, and relentless arrogance, he was that disappearing political artifact known as the intellectual celebrity. His prolific ideas shaped the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, his 1957 book Capital Culture was a yearlong bestseller, and he appeared on the Jack Parr show with the regularity of Carol Burnett and Billy Graham. He was an early and vocal critic of the Vietnam War and had a knack for riling conservatives with his dire warnings against excessive stock market speculation. The McCarthyites repeatedly attempted and failed to make the Communist label stick; the only dirty secret Hoover could uncover was his being “an especially conceited bastard,” which half the world already knew.
After further hemming and hawing as to the placement of principals, Trygve opened the hatch to allow Daphne entry into the dog’s kennel. She was surprised to see caging everywhere, not just separating the back seat from the hatch. An intact cage had been wedged inside the cavity, so that you had to close the dog—or yourself—in before shutting the hatch.
She was already covered with hair when Trygve slammed the hatch. “What kind of dog?” she asked as he started the engine.
“Black lab,” he replied. “Queequeg.”
“Now do you suppose,” Simon hollered from the front seat, “that my worldly son named his dog for the Melville character, or do you think he merely mimicked the fellow from the Generation X-Files on television?”
Linus came to the diplomatic rescue. “Trygve is a man of his time. Cultural referents are de rigueur for a man of his time.”
“Such depth!” Simon scoffed.
Daphne could see that the economist had a temper, but she’d been pleased on learning that he, too, had been friends with Bucky Fuller—he wasn’t a Unitarian, but the two men had collaborated on numerous projects over the course of thirty years. Simon was also a jazz nut who wished he could play the piano like Fats Waller or Art Tatum and had recently retired from his ten-year stint as president of the North American Camus Society. He was two years younger than Linus and lived in Cambridge with his wife of many years. They were still said to be avid cross-country skiers and had two daughters in addition to Trygve.
“Are you all right back there in your cage?” Linus asked without turning around.
“Allow me to write your biography,” Elijah interjected. “Daphne Passerine: I Know Why the Caged Bird Swings.” He then snapped open the two locks on the valise resting on his lap. “I have a gift for the prisoner,” he declared, pulling out and holding up Elsewhere Underwrites My Existence: A Critical Biography of Philip Larkin, an old hardcover with an eighties topology of five different fonts.
She didn’t have the heart to tell him she’d already bought and read the book with its five different fonts.
“Is it autographed?” she asked.
“Of course it’s autographed!” he shouted. “By Philip Roth.”
“But how,” Linus began, “how, Elijah, is Daphne going to take possession of her gift being behind bars?”
“Bake it into a cake!” Jan shouted.
“I’ll hide it inside my Afro!” Elijah countered.
It was like a cartoon, she thought, but still she couldn’t ignore the sinister feeling that had at some point settled in. “Mistress Eugenie” sounded like a Weimar dominatrix, a Parisian striptease artist, a Soho spanking diva.
“Daphne,” Linus continued, sounding penitent, “our cherished arbiter elegantiae, I sincerely apologize for your having to endure this indignity.”
“Hear, hear!” his confreres echoed—this and “Utterly unacceptable!” and “I have a good mind to write my M.P.!”
The sound of her laughter surprised her—it seemed presumptuous; it seemed possessive. Maybe the exotic idea of being “the real thing” for Linus Steinbrenner or for anyone had temporarily gone to her head. But as their earthbound monkey lane-hopped down the Mystic Valley Parkway, she knew who she was, despite all the dog hairs. She doubted her capacity to live every day, just as she doubted the possibility of someone opening the cage to set her free.