The old man in the khaki windbreaker had picked the wrong day to be alone. Bleakness hung in the air with the ghostly drape of Spanish moss. The old man seemed to Daphne distressingly lost within the windbreaker, within the cemetery, within the context of her life. And yet here he was holding blue light.
Run away again?
She’d already fled a voice called Ethan, and before that a biologist with a foraged heart.
“I feel so calm in my life these days,” Victor Slocum had confessed on arrival at the specimen hall. “People tell me they can feel it in the air. Can you?”
She could only shrug.
“Since the transplant,” he went on, “I do everything so calmly, so patiently. I used to brag to people, ‘I’m a total type A, know what I mean?’ I was a bastard with anyone wasting my time. And now”—like Master Thespian he breathed majestically in and expansively out—“everything so calmly.”
Calmly Daphne’s mind repeated as the Harvard professor talked genetics and birds. Calmly is what they advised during fire drills: Exit calmly and no one winds up dead. But wasn’t death the one thing you’d explicitly panic over, the thing to cause even flaccid hearts to leap into throats and throats to erupt into shouts and shouts to lead to irrational behavior like grabbing a gun and shooting the person standing closest?
“Is everything all right?”
There was no logic to bolting from the specimen hall—or to flagging a taxi on Kirkland and directing the driver to Mount Auburn’s gates. Once inside, however, Daphne was able to breathe like Victor Slocum. She felt at home amid the rolling acres of ashes and dust—the famous and infamous, the merely historical, the utterly forgotten. She never expected to wind up at Mount Auburn but always had something to do when she arrived: place two nickels on top of Buckminster Fuller. There was this, there was usually a segue to collect white pine needles for making tea, and today there was Ethan.
“Screw Ethan, is that it? It’s Screw Ethan Day and I didn’t get the memo!”
She had stopped for the needles and was found by him, this popup confidant shouting into his phone.
“I said fuck your fucking Outlook, Emily!”
She instantly scrapped the needles in favor of a visit to the Christian Science Queen Mother. She liked the urban legend that Mary Baker Eddy’s sprawling memorial with miniature, swan-stocked lake also included an in-crypt phone line. The rationale seemed to be that when Mary was awoken from death’s slumber, she’d be able to dial Christian Science 911 to get someone to spring her.
Daphne always wondered why Mary didn’t trust Jesus to go the extra mile. After all, once he got past the big decision to reactivate her card, why wouldn’t he plop her down in Times Square with a new set of clothes and cab fare—maybe even a ticket to Letterman? But it was also possible that the phone line was a shrewd enticement, an Oh, yoo-hoo to show that Mary had done half of Jesus’ legwork for him. Whatever the logic, you had to marvel at her uncanny foresight—that the first thing she’d want to touch when Christ performed the Lazarus Maneuver would be a phone.
Daphne didn’t have to look to know that Ethan was trailing her on Halcyon Avenue. Within the space of a second she turned around and headed for Willow Pond, where in the summer you could watch Jacobean drama unfold in the form of a bullfrog lunging at and barely missing a dragonfly and then a great blue heron lunging at and barely missing selfsame frog.
And now in her path stood this very old man and his blue light. The clouds had stopped their maleficent churning. Their swag of grays fell noncommittally across the sky, allowing an odd, remote kind of light to strike earth right where she stood.
“Henry James,” came a voice. It was too late for Daphne to run away again. “Henry James declared that the most beautiful words in the English language are summer afternoon.”
The light-holder had nullified her right to remain an arbitrary presence. The fact that there was no turning back almost made her laugh. “Where’s my summer afternoon?” she hollered, more so to the world.
She noticed the reservoir of mist seeming to melt around the blue radiating from the man’s hand. “A place where imagination is possible,” he continued, exerting himself to achieve the volume of a shout.
Something made her move to see what had been underfoot. It was a metal plate with a number—252—paid for by someone waiting to die. “You mean here?” she asked, looking up.
“Faith and believing,” he went on happily, “the divine milieu.” He folded the phone in his hand, causing the blue light to disappear.
“Divine milieu,” she hollered back. “You don’t hear people say things like that.”
He held out his hand as he began walking toward her; she ran to him to prevent something bad come of it.
“Linus Steinbrenner,” he declared when she gently shook the hand with enormous liver spots.
His counteraction to this restraint of ardor was to drop the phone into his jacket pocket and clasp his other hand over the back of hers. The spots, she noticed, barely left any flesh-tone visible, like a map of Occupied France.
“You don’t seem the kind of person who’d come here to talk on the phone.”
He smiled. “My daughters worry.”
“Why does everyone need to call someone right now?”
This made him laugh. “A question similar to Paul’s to the Corinthians: ‘Why am I in peril every hour?’ ”
“For me,” she confessed, “having or not having constant access to a phone doesn’t erase the hourly peril.”
“That you are conversing with me,” he began, raising his shaky hand, index finger poised to underscore his point. “That is something.”
“Yeah,” she said with a wary smile.
“Sit?” he asked, motioning toward the pond-side bench.
She made a face. “It’s pretty wet.”
“Can you be brave, Daphne? Can you be brave in this crazy new world order and survive a wet bum?”
She helped him lower his body onto the slats and then sat beside him.
“I reserve a special reverence for your name,” he said.
She smiled. “Sometimes I lie about it to strangers.”
“Never lie when you don’t need to,” he advised in a dire tone. “Needing to lie is anguish enough.”
She nodded as if no one had ever warned her against lies.
“And besides,” he added, “I am no longer a stranger.”
She smiled again. “What about my name do you revere?”
“I find the story of Daphne and Apollo an extraordinarily good one, rich with lessons for individuals and nations.”
“People don’t usually do much with Daphne except misspell it.”
He smiled, wanting more.
“There’s a Daphne Path here, near the main gate.”
He maintained the prodding smile.
“Someone I knew . . . ” She stopped herself amid starting.
“I’m listening,” he replied.
“He came here alone,” she went on, “and he told me, ‘I was lost, and then I found myself on the Daphne Path.’ Although I suppose he probably made that up.”
He was intrigued. “Which part did he make up? That he was lost, or that the Daphne Path was where he found himself?”
“Geez, I know who you are, Linus Steinbrenner!”
Her desire to change the subject was conveniently concurrent with this burst of recognition. “Man, I feel so stupid! You . . . and George Marshall and Dean Acheson.”
“Elder statesmen of the elder statesmen.”
“Oh, of course,” she said. “You couldn’t be that old.”
“Or that dead.”
She offered him her hand to shake a second time. Then she apologized for implying that meeting him would not have been an honor had he not been Linus Steinbrenner the diplomat and historian.
“My relevance to contemporary affairs is this,” he began, clearing his throat. “Magazine fact-checkers place wagers before it is verified that I’m not dead. This is shortly followed by barks—howls perhaps—of incredulity. And perhaps even annoyance. My being extant could be considered an arrogant affront.”
She nodded. “At least George Marshall and Dean Acheson have the modesty to remain dead.”
“You sound like”—he shook a wobbly finger at her—“you have a vocation.”
“It’s what’s needed in these unconsecrated times—needed more than anything, Daphne. In Oliver Wendell Holmes’s learned phrasing, ‘Not to share in the activity and passion of your time is to count as not having lived.’ ”
“The activity and passion of my time, I’m pretty sure, is to talk into a phone. I don’t think I count.”
“Great vocations arise, my dear, from people’s unwillingness to accept that their vote doesn’t count, that they don’t get a say in how the universe deals out hands.”
“Alas,” she conceded, “I have but a job.” She plucked a postcard from her bag and handed it to him.
“Live Every Day,” he read, repeating the phrase with alternating pronunciations of Live as verb and adverb.
She was so surprised she laughed. “I never once saw it that way . . . that I could be working for a place where you buy lobsters.”
“And what is it they do if not selling lobsters?”
“It’s a nonprofit with a website,” she said.
He nodded. “A dangerous combination.”
She laughed again. “It’s bankrolled by some rich couple. They don’t want their identities made public.”
“Are they spies?”
“I wouldn’t be surprised.”
“What do you do there?”
“I write things—slogans. It’s basically an ad agency where the product is inspirational people. The products are subway posters and billboards. So I write clever things.”
She waved away his exuberance. “The website has bona fide stories about these inspirational people. And there’s a national lecture series and conferences. But I’d have to say that it’s not a vocation.”
He sighed. “Do you at least follow your inspirational advice? Do you live every day, Daphne?”
He looked so happy she hated to disappoint. “I guess I’m more like Paul nagging those Corinthians. You know—in peril every hour.”
“This one included?”
She smiled into her lap. “You’re asking too many concerned questions.”
“Such a reply, dear lady, would indicate peril.”
She tilted her head back. “That sky can’t even decide what it wants.”
He looked up at the accused. “What makes you think it hasn’t already decided?”
They stared at the sky together.
“If I tell you what made me come here today,” she proposed, “will you promise not to think less of me?”
“I am sure I shall still think you worthy of your name.”
For some reason, she felt the sudden need to confess. Maybe it was his extreme age; maybe his extreme wisdom. Or maybe it was because he wasn’t as dead as George Marshall and Dean Acheson.
“I was interviewing an evolutionary biologist at Harvard,” she told him, “not even an hour ago. We’re going to feature this guy in an ad. He’s had a heart transplant and does all kinds of strenuous things—cycling races for hunger and breast cancer. He just resumed his fieldwork studying rainforest birds for deviations of color.”
“Ah,” he said, nodding, “Vic Slocum.”
“Oh, no, you know him!” she exclaimed, almost relieved. “It wouldn’t be right to talk about him.”
“No, no,” he insisted, reaching over to grasp her hand. “Please, go on, Daphne—tell me before it rains again.” He paused. “I have very little time left for anything. But right now, I want nothing more than to hear your story.”