Daphne could find nothing online about a Mistress Eugenie of Medford, Massachusetts—nothing but the fact that someone named Vernon St. Urgis was paying the property taxes at that address. Her searches for “Mr. Dowling” in relation to Winkill were similarly fruitless.
“So you’re still in on this heist?” Trygve Frost asked a week after Daphne ate Mistress Eugenie’s cake.
“Doesn’t it bother you that she’s a scam artist?” she asked him.
“How much are they paying her?”
“How should I know?”
“I thought you were their treasurer.”
“I’m not a mind reader.”
“Don’t you have a ballpark idea?”
“Probably not much.”
“How do you know?”
“If you mean am I worried that she’s bilking my inheritance—no, I’m not.”
“But what if it’s true about her knowing Winkill?”
“I’m not his nanny,” he shot back. “If he wants to take that risk because he just has to have his gypsy fortune-teller fix, then that’s his problem.”
“Does he have a history of this kind of interest?”
“What, talking to the dead?”
“Yeah, that,” she said, annoyed.
“No, not really.”
“Well how did he get involved with her then?”
“I’m not supposed to talk about this.”
“But I know who she is,” she argued. “I could run background checks on her if I wanted to spend the money.”
“My mother isn’t supposed to know any of this shit. And why do you think that might be? Oh, maybe because what the old clown wants to be doing is two-timing her with his dead girlfriend, who from what I hear was a cunt. The old lady and my sisters live and breathe purified 02138 air.” He paused. “Would you want to be the one rubbing their faces in the guy’s trash? It’s not just the dead spirits shit I’m dealing with here. I have to drive them around and put up a front, so I’d say that what I am is their pimp.”
“Then why are you doing it?”
“You want to know why, Lois Lane? They’re paying me, that’s why. They know money talks. So they’re paying her, they’re paying me, and now they’re paying you.”
“I’m not doing this for money.”
He laughed. “Oh, come on. You mean you’d do it for free—make it seem like their never-never land honey-pots are finally hot for some phone sex? He chuckled when she failed to answer. “Don’t you get that they’re after dead tail?”
She knew the danger of idealizing the men. All four were snobs to varying degrees. It was strange how we cease to come off as jerks, assholes, and criminals when we no longer have the stamina to pull it off. “They’re old men,” she argued.
“I’ll tell you one thing,” he replied. “Kindermans is the one who found Eugenie. Apparently he’s always been into the séance crap.” He laughed. “So much for Lutherans!”
Daphne arrived at the café early to find Elijah in his beret and turtle glasses already seated at a small table. He had a stainless-steel teapot, two saucered cups, and a tiny egg timer rapidly dropping its sand.
“I’m the first one here!” he shouted in greeting. “Linus will think he’s died and gone to heaven.”
“That means you believe in heaven,” she said as she sat.
“Certainly not Linus Steinbrenner’s heaven,” he replied, sliding the second cup in front of her.
“How about Simon Cooper Frost’s heaven,” she asked, “or the Reverend’s?”
“Jan’s heaven would have nine-foot-tall bouncers,” he mused. “Simon’s would simply consist of himself being proved right about everything. As my students like to say, gets old fast.”
She looked at the timer and smiled: “Like sands through the hourglass . . . ”
“So are the days of YOUR life, baby! I’m too busy watching this pot that never boils.”
“My uncle used to make tea from pine needles.”
He made a grimace. “Please don’t tell me what he did with the cones.”
She sighed. “Is it tea yet, Professor Tweeten?”
“Patience there, Mistress Quickly.”
“I don’t have any patience. I’ve already finished your Larkin surprise.”
“Don’t tell me you tore into it like a Harry Potter book?”
“How did you know?” she said with a laugh.
“I am all-knowing and all-seeing with my four all-seeing eyes. And a couple of them are telling me that we now have our tea.”
“What does Simon’s son do for a living?”
“Spend his father’s money,” he replied, pouring out the tea.
“He told me he’s ‘a life-maximizing consultant,’ but that doesn’t sound like a real job.”
“No jobs sound like real jobs to me anymore,” he confessed. “But the fellow does seem to have a purpose—and that would be to marry a succession of horrid women.”
“So he is probably nothing like his namesake, the Norwegian economist.”
“I would have to wager no on that one. Why do you ask?”
“He doesn’t seem trustworthy.”
“Trustworthy, no, but also too dim to do much damage.”
“Look at the president,” she said with alarm. “He’s dim and yet seems poised to do a lot of damage.”
“I guess what matters,” he conceded, “is whom you have buttressing your dimness.”
“So can you assure me that Trygve doesn’t have a Dick Cheney?”
“In addition to your pal Queequeg, the man has a hard-drinking wife who sells real estate and a vile stepson who steals money from his classmates at BB&N.”
“Dad, you’re a prick—anyone ever tell you that?”
The intrusion was a phone conversation boldly come in from the cold and now standing at the counter, keeping the girl hanging on the latte question.
“Oh, for heaven’s sake,” Daphne whispered to Elijah, “it’s that same guy.”
“What same guy?”
“From Mount Auburn Cemetery, the day I met Linus. I can’t believe I remember him so well. He was fighting on the phone with his girlfriend.”
“What were they fighting about?”
“I have no idea, but I remember that her name is Emily because I pictured her as being nothing like Emily Dickinson.”
“You certainly do pick up the details, Lieutenant Columbo.”
“How can anyone not anymore?” she asked, irritated. “You want to break up with your girlfriend? Go to Walgreens. You want to talk to your doctor about a vaginal wart? Go to Whole Foods. You want to tell your best friend that her cellulite at the beach last weekend was nauseating? Go to Trader Joe’s, put her on speakerphone.”
She gave herself a mental lashing for the inclusion of vaginal wart. “I’m sorry,” she added hastily. “That was kind of lewd.”
“You’re just being yourself, my dear.”
She thought for a moment. “Someone I knew once told me, ‘If you can’t be yourself, who do you suppose will stoop to doing it for you?’ ”
He smiled. “And who, pray tell, would that someone be?”
“Him?” the guy at the counter shouted into his phone. “That sleazebag?”
“Ethan,” she whispered. “That guy’s name is Ethan.”
“I want to know why she says she knows him!” Ethan shouted, his conversation now having captured the entire café’s attention. People paused, some even turning to look at him, as if waiting for the answer—Daphne too, against her will. Yes, why? she thought in that gap of a moment before the world resumed its pulse rate.
“Oh, look,” said Elijah, reclaiming her attention, “it’s Linus’s hot babe, the Duchess Va-Va-Voom.”
He was referring to the white car visible through the café’s large front window.
“Really?” she asked. “Linus is in a relationship with Mathilde?”
“Not our Linus,” he reassured her. “But her—she’d be game to it.”
“Even though he’s decades older?”
“That lady’s got quite the rep.”
They watched as Mathilde, having walked around to the passenger side, supervised Linus’s repatriation with public space. Daphne could see that she was indeed beautiful.
“I thought she sounded like a Marlene Dietrich impersonator,” she said idly.
He laughed. “She’s got a set of balls all right.”
Greeting Linus had already begun to make Daphne sentimental. She met him at the door and snagged a chair, getting him seated just as Ethan finally left the building holding a cup of something extra-large.
“Exit the vulgarian,” Elijah announced, “stage left.”
“Did I miss some drama?” asked Linus.
“A guy having a very loud conversation on his phone,” Daphne said. “I suppose he’s not really a vulgarian, just a product of his time.”
“Like my grandchildren I suspect,” he replied. “They are graduating college with no idea of what they want to do, and yet their résumés include ‘mission statements’ wherein they state their expectations of work they deem tolerable. It has to be ‘interesting,’ ‘fulfilling,’ ‘stimulating,’ ‘continually engaging my curiosity.’ Not the philosophy of one standing humbled before the great wide world with its mysteries and wonders.”
“The world is theirs,” said Daphne, “not mine.”
“Optimism,” Linus counseled. “I want to see that Thomas Paine spirit at play.”
“The Thomas Paine spirit is your idea,” she replied. “I myself don’t have any.”
“Well, then you must rise to the Common Sense challenge!”
She shook her head. “No one wins but the bad guys.”
On her return from going to the counter to fetch Linus tea, she could see through the window the remaining members of the Quartet being disengaged from an expensive-looking sedan. A tiny elderly woman in a fuzzy white hat had got out of the driver’s seat to do for Simon what Mathilde had done for Linus, although without the va-va-voom. Jan, all arms for the extraction, made it seem like Linus’s great wide world was some kind of assailant.
“Who’s that driving them?” Daphne asked.
“Simon’s wife, Susan,” Linus said.
“Suzie Chapstick,” Elijah added.
Linus smiled. “He’s alluding to Susan’s continued robust fondness for skiing.”
Daphne tried to envision the pair of Frosts skiing together—six and a half feet of economist and an even five of economist wife. How could they ever see eye to eye on anything?
“How about Jan?” she asked. “He’s not living on his own, is he?”
“He has a whole crew from Harvard plus a housekeeper to look after him,” Elijah reassured her.
“And his ex-wife, Ingrid,” Linus added, “who is something of a saint.”
The narrow café with its bald acoustics was not a good place for the elderly; you had to move tiny tables in order to achieve seating for a group, and then you created a fire hazard while also blocking access to the bathrooms. Once she’d procured coffee for the economist and theologian, Daphne girded herself.
“No James today,” Simon stated curtly, glaring at Jan.
“Yes, James today!” he replied, smiling. “We haven’t finished.”
“I say we have,” said Simon.
“Would you prefer,” asked Elijah, “that he give us a sermon in reply to the defense secretary’s beliefs about plutonium deposits?”
Simon made a concessionary gesture with his bony shoulders.
“Briefly,” Linus suggested. “Let us briefly return to James.”
“I have brought a passage to recite from,” said Jan, digging out a very old book from the deep pocket of his overcoat.
“No more of his blasted letters!” Simon ordered.
“Not a letter!” Jan replied, opening the book to an early spot marked with a faded ribbon, like a hymnal. “I have his introduction to the anthology of his father’s work, published in memorial”—he tilted the spine toward his audience though nothing on it was legible—“called Literary Remains.”
“Literal Remains?” Elijah asked.
“Literary!” the theologian hollered. “What the tragically misguided continue to call you!” His command of English was strong, but his strange inflections gave Daphne the sense that each word he enunciated was new, that she was hearing it for the first time.
She wasn’t surprised that Jan was the youngster of the group—a mere eighty-four to Elijah’s eighty-seven—but she was pleased in some way to have achieved three-for-three in the Bucky stakes. Lore had it that Jan and Bucky had once used a contest skipping stones on Lake Winnipesaukee as an indicator of, first, the Trinitarian nature of God and eventually of God’s very existence, though nothing was recorded of the outcome.
Jan had come to America planning a temporary stay and remained for fifty-four-and-counting years—lecturing first at Cornell, then at Union Theological Seminary, and finally at Harvard. His theologian’s response to existentialism, All Souls, became a bestseller in 1960, and his most famous sermon, “I Die with Hope,” was delivered after the assassination of JFK. As a civil rights activist, he joined student sit-ins in Atlanta and was hauled off to jail with Howard University Freedom Riders. In more than one Magnum photo the big marching man can be seen clasping hands cross-armed in his dusty-chalkboard suit.
He was a major player in international efforts to end Apartheid and advocated AIDS awareness even in the disease’s early years. He worked tirelessly with the United Nations to resolve the global landmine crisis and lobbied the entire world on behalf of intervention in Kosovo. He divorced his wife of forty years in 1998; they had no children but a decades-long series of Dachshunds whose dynasty seemed to have also ended in 1998. His ex-wife was a Nietzsche scholar still publishing. None of her more than one hundred and sixty journal articles was not searchable by the keyword “Nietzsche.”
Jan cleared his throat harshly and resumed his professorial tone. “From 1884,” he announced and proceeded to recite:
To suggest personal will and effort to one “all sicklied o’er” with the sense of weakness, of helpless failure, and of fear, is to suggest the most horrible of things to him. What he craves is to be consoled in his very impotence, to feel that the Powers of the Universe recognize and secure him, all passive and failing as he is. Well, we are all potentially such sick men. The sanest and best of us are of one clay with lunatics and prison-inmates. And whenever we feel this, such a sense of the vanity of our voluntary career comes over us, that all our morality appears but a plaster hiding a sore it can never cure, and all our well-doing as the hollowest substitute for that well-being that our lives ought to be grounded in, but, alas! are not.
“Well, that’s uplifting!” Simon scoffed.
“For James,” Linus declared, “no philosophy could ever sufficiently address despair. He believed philosophy was limited by its recognition of its own limitations.”
“Precisely!” Jan continued. “James believed that philosophy is for those empowered to face the universe on its own terms, knowing full well that there is no guarantee that their will shall be acknowledged. He saw the religious response to the universe as legitimate, but he was unable to attain such consolation.”
“Much like Hardy’s despair,” Elijah added, “at there being not even a vindictive God who would torment him for some petty reason:
How arrives it joy lies slain,
And why unblooms the best hope ever sown?
—Crass Casualty obstructs the sun and rain,
and dicing Time for gladness casts a moan.”
Daphne sat with pen and notebook, repeatedly underlining despair—a word not on the drop-down menu at Live Every Day.
“I remember but one solitary statement from the man,” Simon interjected, perturbed, “and that is ‘I have no living sense of commerce with God.’ There, done, finis! Fait accompli for our fair Will. Whatever the man wrote is discredited by how he felt.”
“I say no!” Jan bellowed joyfully. “His infernal frustration is our pathway to understanding.”
“I agree with Jan,” said Linus. “That he was too honest to feign a spiritual communion he was never able to truly feel does not diminish his will to hope.”
“What James gave us was a philosophy of hope,” Jan insisted with new animation, “whose very premise is that there is no sound reason for hope.”
“And that is inadequate!” Simon charged. “And the testament of its inadequacy is the basis of your scholarly career!”
“But it is a philosophy of hope regardless!” the theologian countered. “James knew that without hope, the tensional integrity of our life toward the future would disappear, and with it life itself.”
“Hope,” Linus added, “is all too sadly disparaged as ‘wishful thinking’ or ‘self-narrative fantasy’ by our culture.”
“Cheapened!” Jan shouted.
Suddenly the men’s artillery barrage ceased without warning. Daphne looked up from her notebook. They had said no to her request to use her recorder as a backup to her handwritten transcriptions—nothing digital. She felt naked without the recorder.
“I will bet all my marbles,” Elijah declared with a sly grin, “that I know how Daphne Passerine would define hope.”
“Give him some paper, Daphne,” Simon said, amused. “We’ll hold him to it!”
Daphne ripped out a page and handed it to Elijah, who took a pen from his jacket and scratched something on the paper; the secret ballot was passed to each of his confreres, who then looked at Daphne.
“OK, Daphne,” Simon began, “brace yourself for Quadruple Jeopardy. And the answer is . . . Hope!”
They each looked at her rather gleefully—hopefully in fact.
She looked at Elijah. “What is the thing with feathers?”
“Ha!” came Jan’s booming laugh.
Linus happily declared, “And our esteemed colleague once again remains in full retention of his marbles!”
When the men had settled down she decided to make her move. “What do you do when you go to Mount Auburn?”
They clammed up for a moment, but then Linus made a gesture of acquiescence. “Daphne is entitled to make sense of things.”
“All right, Daphne,” said Simon, “you’re in the thick of it.”
“So who’s going to answer?” asked Elijah.
“Let me say,” Simon went on, “that Mistress Eugenie believes that our project’s substance derives from being corollary to theories of the Four Corners.”
“As in the four cardinal directions,” said Linus. “And also the four elements, the four seasons, the four phases of the moon.”
“The four Gospels!” Jan offered. “Isaiah’s four corners of the earth, Jeremiah’s four winds, the four rivers from Genesis that flowed out of Eden to water the world. The four castes of Vedic India, the four pillars of destiny in Chinese culture.”
Linus had more: “The four ages of man. Plato’s four cardinal virtues of Fortitude, Prudence, Temperance, and Justice.”
They appeared to think this sufficient—four rivers that watered the world; next question.
“So there are Four Corners,” she ventured, “and then there is Mount Auburn Cemetery?”
“Where we place the call!” Jan exclaimed.
She found it hard to get past the language of placing the call, something originally requiring the presence of an intermediary, the operator in Boise or Sandusky or St. Louis plugging and unplugging cables and sweetly or not sweetly saying “connecting” into her mouthpiece—the necessary angel of Bell Telephone.
“The location,” Simon explained, “is determined by Mistress Eugenie’s dicta that the point of communion shall be that which contains the remains of one of the deceased.”
She longed to point out the countervailing four corners of Princeton, Columbia, MIT, and Harvard but instead asked another question. “So is it that you place the call at Mount Auburn, where Anna is buried, and you do so . . . together?”
“It must be done in unison,” Simon continued, flashing the confidence needed to sway the Federal Reserve. “The strength of one individual’s determination is not enough.”
“Although Mr. Steinbrenner begs to differ!” Jan charged.
“So where are the other three buried?” she asked.
“Maja’s in Norway—Kristiansand, her home,” said Jan. “Edwina’s in England—Dorset.”
“That was not Eddie’s home,” Simon added angrily. “She did not wish to be buried there.”
“What about Pandora?” asked Daphne.
Elijah’s silence was honored by his friends’ dropped gazes. None seemed to notice that the song playing on the café’s stereo was the Chi-Lites’ “Have You Seen Her?”
“So do you have any kind of theory about Mistress Eugenie?” she asked.
“I have a theory!” Jan announced with enthusiasm.
“You needn’t be taking this down,” Simon snapped, staring at Daphne’s hands.
“I should stop?” she asked the men, who deferred to Simon.
He thought for a moment. “All right then,” he relented, lifting his long gangly hand and rotating it like a director’s call for action, “press on, continue.”
“I was responsible for Eugenie,” Jan admitted defiantly, “surrendered myself to her powers. Say what you will about outward appearances. Spiritualism is for the ignorant, unwashed masses—what my brethren call ‘unchurched sources’ of magico-malarkey. And yet the woman possesses an unworldly insight, knowledge beyond human intuition. The Zulu believe in a village diviner and we have met her! My theory is you believe and you do so willingly.”
Jan’s confession caused his confederates to pile on the clever phrases—“mystic mistress” and “our Teresa of Medford” and “overseeing oversoul.” Daphne was amazed to be cognizant of thinking while transcribing their ramblings and almost imperceptibly mouthing the song’s refrain Tell me, have you seen her? In the heat of the men’s repartee and her own scribbling, something told her to look up. It was the Quartet’s earthbound monkey.
“Your broker just called,” said Trygve, visibly peeved. “She wants the bunch of you over there ASAP, but mainly Daphne because she says she has a question to ask right now.”
The four men looked apprehensively at one another and then at Daphne.
“A question for me?” she asked.
“That’s what I just said.”
“And what if I don’t want to see her right now?” she said, irritated. “Or ever?”
Trygve shrugged. “It’s your funeral.”
Amid the silence she sensed panic, like a draft swept up under the table.
“We need you to go there,” said Simon, “if that’s what she wants.”
Daphne felt nearly betrayed. “I don’t care what she wants.”
“Daphne,” Linus said in appeal, “I ask that you please honor our request.”
She didn’t want to go back to that place and that woman. “Look,” she said, “you gentlemen have an arrangement with her, and I respect that. But I don’t owe her anything. If she wants to ask me a question she can send an email. Better yet, have her tie it to the leg of a passenger pigeon.”
Linus seemed sad to interject, “I’m afraid passenger pigeons are extinct.”
“Then how about those birds on her mantle?” she snapped. “Can’t she cross herself, blow a kiss to the Beatles, and make one of them pop back to life and do the job?”
“My dear Daphne,” Elijah implored, “it will all be over before you can say Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.”
What were they so afraid of? she wondered. Why did they fear angering or crossing their mystic mistress?
Finally, it was Jan who created the breaking point. “For the benefit of the Quartet,” he pleaded with a submissive finality. This seemed to Daphne an especially rigged ploy, like the girl with crutches and leg braces from long ago—the one who’d come out at the end of the telethon to play the accordion for Jerry Lewis and all humanity.
“OK, OK,” she relented. “Just this one time. And then never again.”