“Did I mention I hate this cage?” Daphne complained as she closed herself in.
The four men occupied the same positions in Trygve’s car as the week before.
“We have trapped ourselves quite a lobster,” said Linus. “Live Every Day.”
“Would you prefer that as your myth,” asked Elijah, “turning into a lobster rather than a tree?”
“I don’t recall the myth you’re gibbering about,” said Jan. “Somebody please refresh my mind.”
“Refreshing your mind is beyond human capacity!” Simon snapped.
“I’ll do the honors,” Elijah replied, clearing his throat. “Apollo, as we know, could be an idiot.”
“Hear, hear,” Simon concurred.
“And idiots,” Elijah continued, “tend to think that teasing is the be-all and end-all to public life.”
“Like certain sham presidents!” Jan added.
“So Apollo teased Eros about his skills as an archer,” Elijah went on. “Given that this was a prized skill, Eros was livid. He grabbed his quiver and shot two arrows, one tipped with gold and the other with lead. The gold-tipped arrow had the power to instill insatiable lust in whomever it struck, whereas the lead-tipped one had the power to create complete abhorrence toward passion and romance. The poor soul struck with the lead arrow would have no desire to love anyone.”
Simon granted. “He must’ve had more than one of those arrows then!”
“Wouldn’t you know,” Elijah continued, “Eros’s gold-tipped arrow struck Apollo, and his lead-tipped arrow struck the fair maiden Daphne, daughter of the river god Peneus. The newly lusty Apollo chased down Daphne, desperate for her love. Repulsed, Daphne fled him endlessly. She soon grew tired of running from her pursuer. It demoralized her being made to feel like a wild beast charging through the forest. And so she beseeched her father for any kind of help. Peneus proved quite a miserable excuse for a god. The best he could come up with for Daphne was transforming her into a laurel tree. Her legs took root and her arms grew into branches.”
Linus nodded. “Apollo was in love with Daphne nonetheless, as a laurel tree.”
“When I met you, Linus,” said Daphne, “you told me that the story of Daphne and Apollo had lessons for nations. What are they?”
“Freedom at all costs,” he replied, “even if the cost is your own people’s livelihood. The mythological Daphne refused to come to the bargaining table.”
“And how about the biological Daphne,” asked Elijah. “Will you come to the bargaining table, my dear?”
She made a whelp from her cage.
“Ha!” shouted Jan. “Soon she’ll be baying at the moon!”
“Daphne Passerine,” said Linus with mock-grandeur, “our very own Beast in the Jungle.”
Their words made her smile—but it was more at the bitter irony of her mother beating them to the punch, back when Daphne was always running away. “You little beast!” Rosemary Passerine had shrieked like some diva from old Hollywood, clenching her thumb, gesturing to the stunned, hard-luck passengers at the bus station where she’d been bit by her own flesh and blood.
Daphne’s ironic smile fell away when she saw the drooping canopy with its half-lit string of lights. Soon everything was the same as last week—the entryway as dark as a cave, the all-consuming din from televisions and radios, the woman in saris under-girded by long-johns yanking the men inside and stripping their coats like she was shearing sheep. Again she dropped the vestments on the stacked cardboard boxes in the stairway.
“All you, in here!” she shouted, leading them into the room opposite that of their last visit. “How about I turn your cards?” she asked Daphne with a wink.
“That’s why you called me here?”
“No, but why not while you’re here?”
“It’s rude to waste my friends’ time.”
From the depths of her saris the mistress extracted a card deck. “You don’t believe in tarot?”
“No,” Daphne mocked, “I don’t believe in tarot.”
“You don’t want me to turn cards for you?” she asked, shuffling her deck as silently as a machine.
“Look,” said Daphne, “when you’re by yourself and bored, yeah, go ahead and turn my cards. You can find out that I’ll lose all my money and be destitute and on the street and will get some horrible disease and die a slow, painful death. Do that on your own time, but don’t drag us into your game.”
“Oh, you are already in my game,” Eugenie said, smiling and shuffling. She plucked a card that she held face-out to Daphne. It read “The Hermit,” punctuated by a period. “This is card for when you met Linus at Anna’s cemetery. See? The wise old man is holding onto light, just like Linus.”
Daphne suddenly realized that not everything was the same as a week ago. “You forgot your dot,” she said, staring at the woman’s clear forehead.
Eugenie shrugged. “I have my good days and bad—you know what I’m sayin’? Like Liz Taylor and all them.”
Daphne looked for solidarity to her friends but saw only stoic faces. “So what do you want to ask me?”
“For your card,” Eugenie went on, “I would give Falconress.” She plucked from the deck another card that she held face-out. “Nine Pentacles. You see this lady and the yellow and red dress? This lovely lady I think is voice of lady I hear telling about five aspects classical rhetoric. This card is for you.”
Daphne looked away from the yellow and red dress. The room’s awkwardly placed centerpiece wasn’t the Beatles but a ceramic statue of Buddha on a pedestal—a bizarrely mustached likeness that brought him down to the level of Frito Bandito. The walls contained the same kind of framed Kama Sutra images seen at every other Indian restaurant in Central Square. The thing that gave Daphne pause, however, was more of those gilded-frame Zodiac constellations. The same seven, in fact.
“You moved these?” she asked, glancing at the pictures.
“I don’t move things,” the mistress replied gravely, “how could I with arthritis in joints?”
Daphne walked to the other room and briskly returned. “You told me you ran out of space,” she said. “You said this was why you didn’t have twelve. But you have seven in one room and the same seven in the other.”
“If I only had more space!” the mistress mused. “I would have twelve and twelve. And you would be happy and I would be happy and all the little children in Africa would be happy.”
“There’s no Taurus,” Daphne snapped. “And no Aquarius.”
“I know what belongs,” she replied, smiling craftily. “I know who belongs. I know what belongs to what, who belongs to who.”
Daphne looked away. “So why am I here?”
“Because I want you look at my special picture!”
The mistress motioned the group’s attention to a dark corner where a tattered shawl shrouded a frame beneath. She walked over, tugged to remove the shawl, and then twisted on a brass lamp to illuminate the image. It was an oil portrait, beautiful and lustrous, that Daphne recognized immediately as Nathaniel Hawthorne, just like the famous painting that hung in a Salem museum.
She had to rush over to the picture. “I sure hope you didn’t steal this.”
“It’s quite remarkable, isn’t it?” said Linus.
“Please say it’s not stolen,” Daphne implored.
“Life makes two of everything,” Eugenie said cheerfully. “Two of the same kitty-cat, two Scorpio in the sky, two Nathaniel Hawthorne.”
“She’s in the clear,” Elijah offered in reassurance.
“A stunning replica of the Osgood,” Linus added.
“He was a handsome devil,” Simon observed.
Jan diverged from the consensus: “A selfish opportunist from what I know!”
“Why him?” Daphne asked.
The mistress laughed. “He is Eugenie’s soul mate. I had nice big house in Salem with witches and Seven Gables and all that nice stuff. Everything going good with Eugenie’s house. And then some guys steal Eugenie’s money and BayBanks snobs they steal Eugenie’s nice house. They insult Eugenie like they insult Nathaniel Hawthorn at Custom House. We both hate Salem.”
“Why keep it covered?” Daphne pressed.
“It needs protection,” she answered, “just like you.”
“I don’t need protection,” Daphne snapped.
“Like I said,” the mistress replied, reaching into the labyrinths of her saris, “I know who belongs.” Her outstretched hand presented an object that only infuriated Daphne.
“No way,” she said, shaking her head.
It was a blue phone like Linus’s and Simon’s and Jan’s and Elijah’s.
“You know why is all I’m sayin’.”
“No,” Daphne said sharply. “I don’t know why.”
“You know why you know why.”
“All I know is that you run a shell game!” Daphne cried.
The mistress was unfazed. “Two of everything,” she continued. “Two of the same kitty-cat, two Scorpio in the sky, two Nathaniel Hawthorne, two halves of broken heart.” She walked over to place the phone on the glistening table.
“Yeah, I know people who’ve died,” said Daphne, following her. “And I know what you do. What you do is you play on people’s vanity that the universal is somehow unique to them—their vanity and their pain. It’s a lousy way to make a living.”
The mistress smiled and started to sing, wagging the index finger of each hand like a choirmaster: “If there’s anything that you want, if there’s anything I can do . . . Come on, all you guys sing with me for this girl. If there’s anything that you want, if there’s anything I can do . . . ”
“Just call on me,” Elijah continued in his brittle voice, “and I’ll send it along . . . ”
Linus concluded:“ . . . with love, from me to you.”
“OK, you guys,” the mistress continued, “now we sing Little Stevie Wonder phone song!”
Daphne felt her forehead hot to the touch, like a curling iron, as Eugenie began swaying like someone holding a karaoke mike. “I just called to say—”
“Where’s the bathroom?” Daphne yelled.
Eugenie pointed her through the dark foyer and into the passage left of the stairs and ultimately a white door with so many layers of paint you had to pull like a funhouse gag. Daphne was relieved to find a room with plumbing and square yellow tiles—tiles maybe fifty years old but tiles nonetheless—along with a claw-foot tub, drying rack, layers upon layers of damp saris and paisley shawls and fringed swaths draped over the shower rod, and in the corner a tall, thin hissing radiator lurching forward like a praying mantis.
The sink console was cluttered with salvaged food jars filled with eye pencils and mascara sticks and tubes of what appeared to be theatrical makeup. On a shelf above the toilet were ancient jars of creams and brown ointments stacked according to size in side-by-side pyramids; the names of most of them Daphne had never heard of. At the base of one pyramid was a clear-glass jar the width of a grapefruit on steroids; the label said “Rexall” and the contents looked to be chalky yellow sulfur. Topping the pyramid was something familiar—the electric cobalt of a Noxema jar, probably new at the time of Kennedy’s inauguration.
After splashing water on her face and looking into the brown-veined mirror, Daphne shoved open the door to find Mistress Eugenie as an alternate barrier.
“Are you going to hurt me?” Daphne asked.
The woman smiled and shook her head. “You know everything already.”
“I didn’t want to come here.”
“So why not you tell me how these old guys get around to cemeteries, eh? They walk on grass, eh? They might slip and fall on icy grass, eh? And you think they are fiddle fit and lucky and that’s why they don’t go down? You think no big deal to that? You think no big deal Linus Steinbrenner ninety-three years and out of hospital just like that?”
In the grip of Eugenie’s stare, Daphne had the sensation of falling deeper into a hole.
“If you think that,” Eugenie continued, “you don’t know nothin’. And let me tell you something else. I come from very old country, so if I drop ‘articles’ it is custom for brats like you to get down on knees and pick them up.”
“Are you going to hurt them?” Daphne pressed.
“Me?” she said with a laugh. “I love those guys. They know I have special magic.”
“Yeah, well I don’t want your phone.”
“My confidents want you to be safe with cell phone. They worry like brothers to you.”
“They’re a little old to be my brothers.”
“But you have brother, eh?”
“You did your homework.”
“Why did you give him back Christmas present, that phone he gave to you and with bill paid whole year?”
“It’s none of your dammed business.”
“You want to know why Linus throws Lanoxin in garbage, eh? You want to know why he fires that nice girl Gwen, eh? You want to know why he uses phone by himself in cemetery, like I tell him not to. I know why to all these, but I don’t know why to your brother.”
Trygve Frost’s rapid-fire honking managed to pierce the din from the four corners of Mistress Eugenie’s enormous house.
“We have to go,” Daphne said, pushing past the woman’s sturdy body. “Simon’s son waits for no man or beast.”
“One more thing,” Eugenie said with a wide grin. “What you think about Monkeyman is all true. So you gotta do something. You hear me? You.”
The reapplication of coats, hats, and scarves in the foyer seemed to absorb as much time as the fruit of the visit.
“You want to go say goodbye to my Nathaniel Hawthorne?” Eugenie asked as Daphne straightened Jan’s collar from the back.
“No,” she said flatly.
“How ’bout you rub Buddha’s belly for luck?”
“No,” she repeated. “He looks like something from a spaghetti western.”
Eugenie’s expression tuned sad. “He looks like my poor Uncle Javier—my poor and famous Uncle Javier who sold tamales to Dick Nixon.”
The return trip began on a somber note. “I don’t want to criticize any of your beliefs,” Daphne declared, “but she can’t intrude into my life. She has no right to make up stuff about me. I don’t believe in it.”
“If you don’t believe it,” Trygve yelled back, “then you’re safe. It’s like the hoodoo thing—if you buy into it, that’s when they put the spell on you.”
“We don’t want you to have a phone if you don’t want one,” Linus consoled.
From her cage Daphne cringed at her inability to communicate with these four brilliant minds of the American century. Why did they clam up with Eugenie? Jan barely said a word; the chatterbox Elijah listened like a juror.
“You should fire me as arbiter elegantiae,” she told them. “There’s a conflict of interest here, and I’ve barely started the job. I haven’t written much down, only stuff Simon said I wasn’t supposed to.”
“If Simon says put your hands on your hips,” Elijah advised, “don’t you do it.”
“Daphne,” Simon began in a chastened tone, “we don’t want to lose you.”
With the economist’s near-humble admission, Daphne’s felt the same duress she had with Jan’s earlier pleading and with Linus and Elijah’s singing the Beatles. She wanted none of them to be in this situation.
“All those in favor of sacking Daphne say aye!” Elijah shouted, the proposition directly followed by four Bronx cheers.
The most she could promise was that she’d think about it. She again asked to be let off in Davis Square, where she realized that her compulsion to expose Mistress Eugenie—to unravel those saris and hear drop the crowbar and the blowtorch and the sticks of dynamite—was now as strong as her compulsion to protect the Quartet. And yet it made her feel a bit of a creep—picking on this little woman with her radios and all the money she was throwing away to keep that huge house at a catatonic 82 degrees. Who but a creep would bully the niece of a presidential tamale-vendor, this woman gamely prepared to have a go at the Little Stevie Wonder phone song? What if Mistress Eugenie truly believed herself to be psychic? What if she thought she was performing an angelic service to the old men?
“How could ya miss it? Only an idiot would miss it. You come off the exit and it’s right there next to Liquor Land.”
The man walking past her while yelling into his phone wasn’t a teenager or a college student but someone old enough to be her grandfather. The web of instantaneous communication now included grandfathers in addition to so many girls like the one walking directly in front of Daphne: “He was all, like, you know, ‘You knew I was going out.’ I’m like, ‘Yea-ah?’ And he’s like, ‘What?’ I’m like, ‘Fine. Whatever.’ You know?”
What was this language? What was this stuff they were telling each other? Daphne had accelerated her pace to pass the girl, when, suddenly, from the very same girl, she heard clearly elocuted, “Elsewhere underwrites my existence.”
Daphne stopped and turned; the girl had started crossing Elm Street. Daphne could feel the sweat of panic under her coat. Why did she say that? The situation was a carbon copy of last week—same time, same place, and maybe even same girl in the North Face jacket who had said “No one should be alone.” Daphne couldn’t stop thinking of Thornton Winkill’s voice saying Mr. Dowling on the radio.
She was prepared to follow this girl, to hunt down the perpetrator of this coincidence, but the girl was already across the street, walking and talking her way through the lives of strangers who were in turn walking and talking their way here, there, and everywhere. As Daphne waited for a break in the traffic she heard from a guy approaching from the opposite side of the street, jaywalking right through traffic, “No one wins but the bad guys.”