With the buzz-click of the lock release, Daphne entered the lobby of Linus’s building and stood with a racing heart. She had been delivered, was now protected—like Esmerelda to Notre Dame or a scarlet tanager to an Audubon sanctuary. The marble lobby contained an elevator with incredibly narrow doors, but she opted for taking the stairs two at a time.
When she got to Linus’s third-floor apartment, the door was opened by a woman with a stern expression. “I’m Gwen,” she said. “You the Daphne girl?”
“As you can see,” said Daphne, “I’m long past being a girl.”
“You look like you’re coming down with something.”
“I’m not sick,” said Daphne. “This is the way I always look.”
“Well it’s not a good look,” Gwen warned, motioning for her to scoot inside. “You need to stop smoking, get more sleep, meditate some, and get yourself some lavender hand lotion.”
“I don’t smoke,” Daphne said in defense, trailing Gwen from foyer to hallway to cluttered large room.
“Then you can take that off your list.”
Linus had a home of good and fine things—the walls and most of the upholstery in neutral shades of what Benjamin Moore called historic colors. The neutrality was anchored by black-oak Craftsman furniture, though Daphne got the sense that the contents of this, presumably the living room, had been edited down from other places and lives.
“Don’t be frightening Daphne,” Linus announced, entering the room from another hallway. His gait was fragile; he held a thin section of newspaper. He himself looked like a thin section of newspaper.
“If I don’t frighten,” Gwen replied, “things don’t get done, people don’t get changed.”
“We like Daphne just the way she is.”
“OK,” Gwen began, nodding toward the large square coffee table, “so I put out some cheese and crackers. You got your food, your bottled H20. There’s some just-made coffee in the kitchen. And now I’ve got to go to work.”
She disappeared into the hallway from which Linus had entered.
“She’s leaving?” Daphne asked.
“Oh, no,” Linus replied, “she’s going to use the computer in my study to do her other job. It used to be Avon Calling. Do you remember that? Women’s cosmetics. But now she makes her sales over the Internet. She has been delivered—thanks to this glorious information highway—from the need to ring doorbells. And she is quite successful.”
“Linus,” Daphne began, trying not to seem excessively distressed, “something strange is going on.”
“It has something to do with Eugenie,” she began warily, taking off her coat. “Since those two times I met with her I’ve felt like there are too many weird coincidences.”
“We must sit down for this, my dear,” he said, recommencing his slow gait to an armchair that was decidedly his. It was surrounded by waist-level stacks of books that served as both demarcation columns and towering tables for spiral-bound notebooks and old leather-bound things—conference proceedings perhaps, or executive briefings—randomly occupied by floral mugs bearing stained teabag tags. As she sat on an adjacent striped sofa—crimson and ivory, Harvard colors—she noticed on the floor, in a tangle of black cable, one of those corporate phones with buttons for several other lines.
“So you say there are coincidences.”
“In what I hear people say,” she confessed. “I mean, in what I overhear people say on the street talking into their phones. I keep hearing things I have recently said or people have recently said to me—things you have said. Simple things, nothing things. I hear parts of these conversations. And it’s only happening on the days I meet with you and the group.”
“So it happened at Simon’s?”
Their last meeting had been at Simon’s stately fieldstone house, just down the street from Harvard Divinity School, where Daphne was introduced to the woman Elijah had called Suzie Chapstick. She had a voice like Bette Davis’s; the knuckles on her arthritic hands looked like ornamental drapery hardware from Pottery Barn.
Daphne nodded. “But not at his house,” she said, “out in the world, on my own.”
“Did it happen today?”
She could still hear the words “A place where imagination is possible.” She had turned toward their source whizzing past—a college kid on his phone—when the rapid-fire counter-comment was lobbed from the opposite direction: “I fear that I am losing faith.” This from a girl whose voluminous cleavage prevented her from zipping her down jacket.
Next up: “If you can’t be yourself, who do you suppose will stoop to doing it for you?” The speaker was a frazzled woman, wiry pieces of gray shooting out of her head in all directions, as if she’d placed a hand on a particle accelerator. She stood near a bus stop pole, trying to hold the phone to her ear while hunting for something deep in her bag. She had the look of a mom who ought to be telling the person on the other end to put away the ice cream and pick up that pile of towels on the bathroom floor. Instead she told her phone, “If you can’t be yourself, who do you suppose will stoop to doing it for you?”
Walking home after the meeting at Simon’s, Daphne had heard a frazzled dad walking between two adolescent boys say into his phone, “I admire his poetry, but I don’t have the stomach for his life.” He looked like Bill Gates; the boys looked like they’d just been given detention. The expression on the man’s face said that he didn’t know what he was going to do with these two, that he was tired of their mother always giving in to them. And yet “I admire his poetry, but I don’t have the stomach for his life.”
Daphne nodded again at Linus. “Just ten minutes ago, and several times before that with these random people. Last Monday I thought I was jumping to conclusions, but now I can see it’s something happening, like something is replaying on a continuous loop.”
He thought in his deliberate way. “Let what Simon suggested at Mistress Eugenie’s be your new motto,” he declared. “Cerca trova.”
She sighed. “My mind is playing tricks on me, Linus. More sleep and lavender hand lotion won’t help. Maybe I’m going crazy.”
“You are not going crazy, my dear. But it is my experience that when we perceive oddities to be occurring externally, at an extrasensory level, it’s usually that we’re actively divining those elements. Hence my advice of cerca trova. Within yourself, Daphne.”
Again she stared at him perplexed. “I look and look,” she said, “really I do. And yet I never find what I’m looking for. I spent my childhood looking for a four-leaf clover and never hit pay dirt. Whenever we visited the country with open fields of grass I’d lie for hours on my stomach inspecting each clover stem, and then I’d get the holler that it was time to go. I’d hedge my bets by grabbing clumps for my pockets, to continue checking—but to the same dismal results. With searching and finding, I have no staying power.”
“You need to have faith.”
“But I’m like you,” she argued. “You told me you’re having a crisis of faith. Is that the reason for Eugenie—cerca trova because God has let you down?”
“Has God let you down, Daphne?”
There was an irritating buzzing noise, the doorbell, and Daphne, distracted, could hear Gwen walking to the foyer like someone in a tussle backstage, concealed behind many lowered curtains. She struggled for a way to answer Linus’s question. “I’ve never had any one figure to blame,” she finally admitted.
“Thomas Paine believed that we are all born democrats, and only through an acquired education in fear do we take refuge in magic.”
“I’d like to believe that, too,” she said, nodding. “Though I don’t think I was a born democrat. I’ve really had to work at it.”
“So you have no use for Christian philosophy?”
She took another moment to think. “You know what I never liked about Christianity? Paul. Yes, Linus, your Paul, even though my brother’s name is Paul. I always thought he was a jerk who didn’t like women or animals, a control freak with no sense of humor and no real love.”
“I’m with Daphne” came Elijah’s voice—husky in intended tone though failing in delivery—trailed closely by a trace of body beneath a dollop of beret. “Paul was one mean sonofabitch!”
“None of that mouth from you,” Gwen cautioned, hovering over the critic like a motorcycle cop—one willing to take away his drop-box raincoat and battered valise.
The sight and sound of Elijah provided temporary relief from dour religious belief, especially when Gwen snatched the beret from his head with a Simpsons “yoink.”
“But Elijah,” Linus began in mock-distress, “wasn’t it your D. H. Lawrence who advised us to trust the tale, not the teller?”
“What do you mean my D. H. Lawrence?” he replied as he set himself down—or more like tilted and then fell into place next to Daphne. She reached over to hold him steady.
“If Paul is going to be my Paul,” Linus countered, “then Lawrence shall be your Lawrence.”
The loud buzzer again pierced the domesticity of Linus’s apartment, and Daphne tried to focus on the task at hand and not Paul or her worries about losing her mind. She grabbed the notebook-in-progress from the bag at her feet and flipped back the cover.
“And of course I’m expecting you’ll doctor all my comments to the content and syntax of Bertrand Russell,” Elijah said merrily.
“Oh, of course,” she replied with a forced smile—one that gradually went south when she read her attempt to summarize the copious notes from last session: “The BHQ believe (??) in a scientifically provable something (??) in another dimension in which the dead, all the souls of mankind, inhere (??)—but that the Christian compulsion to love and optimism about the future is what should guide man in his lifetime.” After reading the summary she crossed it out; that’s not what she remembered from last time.
“Daphne appears to be fretting,” announced Elijah. “Don’t be afraid to tell me you have issues with Bertrand Russell, because it’s generally the most scintillating minds that do.”
“I don’t have issues,” she said, “because I don’t have a scintillating mind.”
What she remembered from last time was a lot of talk about Spinoza and Schopenhauer—and Elijah begging the group not to say “Spinoza and Schopenhauer” together because it reminded him of a Cole Porter lyric. And then there ensued a minor three-to-one feud in which Jan Kindermans refused to believe that the song “You’re the Top” did not include the lyric “You’re the top; you’re the cat’s pajamas.” She flipped over the paper in the notebook and used the other end of the pen to tap on the page impulsively, repeatedly, like twenty-something smokers to their packs of Camels.
Linus had been smiling at her approvingly all this time. “I can see that our arbiter elegantiae is eager to begin.”
Jan and Simon entered the room in a boisterous gale. They were already bickering, with Simon cursing Trygve’s driving. When both were greeted and sat themselves in twin leather chairs, and after they briefly complained about the quality of cheese—not Gwen’s blocks of Gouda and cheddar per se but the sorry state of cheese-making domestically—their talk turned to the current administration and the United Nations and Britain and France and Russia and an aborted segue into the Suez Crisis and then a desert war. Daphne didn’t bother recording this part of the proceedings but instead played waitress, fetching coffee and making tea with bags of Salada and securing from Linus’s pantry an alternative kind of fibrous though very stale cracker at Simon’s demand (“This? Not this!”).
Eventually she noticed that Simon had noticed her eating stale crackers and nodding. He raised his hand toward the notebook and idle pen at her side. “Our discussions have again devolved into mere politics!” he shouted. “We aren’t giving Daphne anything relevant to record!”
“Politics are not mere!” Jan shot back.
“We’re too old for politics anyway,” Elijah said with a sigh, causing Daphne to rub her hands and lap free of crumbs and pick up her pen.
“We are never too old for politics,” Jan countered, “because we ourselves constitute a polity.”
With Jan’s “polity,” the banter only accelerated. Daphne began scribbling faster, and before long some dearly held belief was said to be unraveling fast. For the first time in her role as arbiter elegantiae, she felt she couldn’t keep pace.
“What did you say was unraveling fast?” she asked at the first available break.
“I can’t remember!” Jan shouted.
“Because it was that fast!” Simon scoffed.
“Faster than a cough among the Brontës!” Elijah added.
“Whatever it is this thing that’s unraveling fast,” Simon added, “we are living in one of Carlyle’s ‘rude eras.’ ”
“Every era’s a rude era!” Elijah proclaimed.
Here they all deferred to Daphne for affirmation—a situation she hadn’t noticed until the elongated pause caused her to look up. “I have not lived a moment that wasn’t rude,” she affirmed.
“We four have lived through periods where the pressing national concern seemed to have historical heft but turned out to be otherwise,” Linus declared, “a mere hiccup of import. But these right now are times that try men’s souls.”
“Oh, that blasted phrase!” Simon scoffed. “Reagan quoted Paine—I can never forget that.”
Linus appeared shocked. “Simon! So the idea is lost to a mere appropriator?”
Simon accentuated an existing frown. “The eighties were a wasteland in American politics, our economy debased to hash with ketchup.”
“Arthur Miller called it the ‘Reagan trance,’ ” Elijah observed, “when writers ‘felt surrounded by an ever-expanding suburbia of the mind.’ ”
“But there were fighters coming out of those times!” Jan said with enthusiasm. “I remember recoiling at the theatrical protests with those rock-and-roll stars and that ‘we are our world’ ballyhoo, the men in those rubber suits to represent prophylactics—so unlike the noble decade of Dr. King!
“And for a time I retreated from what they call ‘activism,’ only to have shamed myself before myself for allowing questions of taste to direct my moral compass. For years now I’ve met with these people, and I see them continuing to work with diligence—diligence!—and staying the course through the sabotaging of healthcare reform and this No Child Left Behind malarkey. And I see them now, still, at the anti-war protests on the Common—wearing their shirts with the marijuana plants! And marching with their teenage children wearing these shirts with the marijuana plants!”
“Yes, bully for the marijuana plants!” Simon bellowed. “But we are again off track!”
“And who do you suppose derailed us?” Jan yelled.
“My dear Ms. Daphne,” Elijah gently pleaded, leaning toward the group’s scribe. “Can you help us out here?”
She wasn’t sure what they wanted from her. She remembered some marginal observations way back at the front of her notebook. She rifled through the wavy pages to find the spot. “I was just looking back on my notes from the meeting before last,” she said, “at the café, and I noticed how Jan had used the phrase ‘tensional integrity.’ Was that by any chance a conscious quoting of Buckminster Fuller?”
“Why, I must say you are a brilliant audience!” Jan replied, genuinely surprised. “Yes, yes, it was a phrasing most certainly borrowed from Bucky! Tensegrity!”
Linus glowed at Daphne. “I told you she was exceptional.”
“He was five-five,” Simon said matter-of-factly, “in height I mean. Would’ve made Elijah here look like Wilt Chamberlain.”
“I manage to look like Wilt Chamberlain quite on my own,” Elijah protested.
“His head was too big for his body,” Jan added, “too many ideas! He wore eyeglasses bigger than Elijah’s—Coke bottles. And he was a Herculean talker!”
“He once calculated that he spoke 7,000 words an hour,” said Linus.
“And those naps of his,” said Simon. “Now they were certainly crazy. You’d be talking to him in the car, and he’d be asleep. Then the car would hit a pothole and he’d snap to, continuing right where you left off when you noticed his snoring.”
“I hope he wasn’t driving,” Elijah muttered.
“He hated to be behind the wheel!” Jan yelled.
“Bucky took many random and instantaneous daytime naps,” Linus told Daphne, “so that his need for sleep was only three hours each night.”
“And that diet of his,” Simon continued, “steak, spinach, Jell-O. That was all.”
“And tea,” Linus added, “cup after cup after cup.”
“He told me he drank so much tea,” Jan explained, “because he gave up being a liquor drinker—and he’d been a liquor drinker since adolescence. And that was caused, he told me, by the fact that he loved to draw as a boy but his mother took his pencils away. Fuller men were not meant to be artists with pencils. Why, they were meant to go to HARVARD! Be DOCTORS!”
“He loved so many things,” Linus observed, “from the highly complex to the commonplace. When he was young he loved the chrome nickel steel that Henry Ford used for Model A radiator grilles.”
“Henry Ford,” interjected Jan, “anti-Semite of the American Century!”
“Model F for Fascist!” added Elijah.
“In fact,” continued Linus, “Bucky’s friend Noguchi used chrome nickel steel on the bust he made of Bucky.”
“I met him once, briefly,” Elijah announced, as if seeking absolution. “All I can say is that my pessimism was the brown and stinging balsamic to his extra-virgin optimism.”
“Not surprising!” Simon said with a laugh.
“Optimism was Bucky’s creed!” Jan exclaimed.
“He believed,” Linus began, “that humanity’s major problems were hunger and homelessness, and at the end of his life he put his mind to those problems rather than the glamorous world of technology.”
Jan scoffed. “Technology is by no means glamorous!”
“Well,” said Linus, “he was a much better man than me.”
“According to Bucky’s reckoning,” Simon explained, “global poverty was supposed to have been eradicated three years ago.” He paused to shake his head. “Ethiopia and Somalia—he would be shocked. Though unlike all of us, he would not be discouraged—or angry—by this loathsome failing on the part of the First World.”
Linus added judiciously, “He believed, ultimately, that his life did not belong to himself but to the universe.”
“A Jamesian fondness for the universe!” Jan exclaimed.
Simon made a theatrical gesture of wincing: “No—more—James I’m telling you!”
Elijah made an equally theatrical gesture of providing an aside to Daphne: “Simon is like a frontier lawman hung up on hunting down the James Gang.”
“For your enlightenment, Signor Balsamic,” an indignant Simon replied, “I am not hung up on any person, concept, philosophy, or food substance, being that I do not recognize hung up as a verb form!”
After an icy silence Daphne felt obliged to mediate. “I’ve always liked Bucky’s philosophy of the trimtab,” she said, “the very end of the rudder on a ship. It concerns the strangeness of how one single person can make things work out, scientifically, against humungous odds.” She paused and added, “I didn’t put that very elegantly.”
“On the contrary,” Elijah replied, “you’ve reminded me of the paradoxical nature of our metaphors for our deepest ideas. If for Fuller it was the ship’s rudder that stood for optimism, with Larkin it was the tits on the ship’s figurehead that stood—pertly one must assume—for extreme despair.”
“Nothing lewd here,” Jan cautioned.
“Is despair lewd, Jan?” Elijah asked with a chuckle. “Larkin captures so beautifully the pain of debasement inherent in intense human longing—whether for God or the girl:
and the figurehead with golden tits
Arching our way, it never anchors; it’s
No sooner present than it turns to past,
Right to the last.”
Trygve’s fanatical honking was something Daphne had grown used to, like the bell indicating the final round of Jeopardy. Jan stood up and shouted, “At last our ship has arrived!”
“But you just got here,” Daphne complained, looking at her wrist.
“Has that watch of yours stopped again?” asked Linus.
“I don’t know,” she replied, “but I can tell it hasn’t been a full hour, just like last week it wasn’t a full hour. I was just starting to feel my notetaking improve.”
“Save that exuberance for our next session,” Elijah advised. “And don’t forget the radical equation of Me = Bertrand Russell.”
With Gwen’s expert supervision, the three wayfarers were coated up efficiently; Daphne would even describe their departure as swift.
“Why is it every time we get together everyone suddenly has to go?” Daphne asked when Linus’s friends had left the apartment. “No wonder the group’s unraveling fast.”
“Who said the group was unraveling fast?”
She thought for a minute. “I don’t know why I said that.”
“You are nonetheless right,” he conceded. “Men of our age needn’t be busy. We needn’t have schedules. Remember the wisdom of Keats: ‘delicious diligent indolence!’ That is the secret of life.”
“But you didn’t practice diligent indolence,” she argued. “How could you? You chased down the Russians, chased down the bad guys.”
He laughed. “Diligent indolence is the secret of a happy life.”
“You weren’t happy?”
He managed a wan smile. “Who was ever happy?”
“You were happy with Anna Hahn.”
“Who can be even retroactively happy at ninety-three? I’m living on highly borrowed time—on ludicrous time, Daphne. In that regard I am quite like this country of ours with its absurd deficits, both sacred and profane—to Mother Nature and Chinese capitalists.”
“Is that why you let Gwen go? Is that why you stopped taking your heart medication?”
He didn’t answer.
“You should give Eugenie the phone back, Linus.”
He smiled. “I’ve been thinking much lately about Thomas Paine’s philosophies. He wrote, ‘I believe in one God, and no more; and I hope for happiness beyond this life.’ What more, really, does one need than that?”
“I guess nothing,” she replied. “Belief is everything.”
He smiled. “Cerca trova, Daphne.”
She thought for a moment. “You know what I told you about grabbing all that clover to find a four among the threes? After my brother moved to California—when my parents divorced, Paul lived with my dad—he came back to visit us for the first time for a month in the summer. I was so happy! The day before he flew back to Sacramento, we went to visit relatives in Pennsylvania, in Bucks County. There was so much clover in their yard that summer. Normally I’d spend hours and hours in single-minded pursuit. But I wanted to spend as much time as I could with Paul before he left me. When we got ready to get in the car, I grabbed fistfuls of clover to stuff in my pockets, going through most of it on the drive home and then continuing at the kitchen table. When I sadly came to my last stem, Paul went to his suitcase and got his airplane glue. He was always at work on his intricate models. His planes were so complex that you never saw him working on the thing in its entirety, just engine parts and landing gear. And so Paul sat down with his airplane glue and my mother’s tweezers and created what he called a bionic four-leaf clover.”
Linus had at some point fallen asleep, which Gwen seemed to know instinctively. There she was, grabbing a plaid blanket off another chair.
“Can I ask you something?” Daphne whispered.
“Make it fast,” said Gwen. “This one’ll wake up.”
“What do you think of Eugenie?”
Linus’s caretaker cast Daphne a harsh look as she unfolded the blanket. She was probably middle-aged, but something about her carriage and manner—not to mention the flawlessly applied makeup—expanded the credible range to anywhere between forty and sixty.
“I met her once,” she said. “I had to pick him up at her place. She makes like she’s some bad-ass voodoo woman. But she’s just trying to get somewhere, work the system. And hey, ain’t we all?”
“So you think she’s like the palm readers in Harvard Square?”
She shook her head.
“You think she’s got real power?”
“Since Linus starts seeing her, he’s some other dude—all this energy coming from somewhere, all this walking around cemeteries, looking at the birds again. And don’t we know that man is old.” She paused. “She’s something else, that one.”
This wasn’t what Daphne wanted to hear as she left Linus’s apartment—more of the inexplicable. What she desperately needed was a voice like her brother’s that could cut through magical thinking, that could tell you where on the Atlantic floor the oldest basalt could be found or which carbonate mineral reacts readily with cool, dilute hydrochloric acid to produce the visible bubbles of carbon dioxide gas.
As Daphne walked past the dingy drugstore and the basement video store and the café where she’d met with the Quartet, the assaults resumed. It seemed like a grade-school play in which everyone had some kind of line to deliver—the embracing couple with the woman yakking away to elsewhere or the guy walking his beagle as he spoke into a device concealed by his shaggy hair.
“What you do is you play on people’s vanity that the universal is somehow unique to them,” the woman said as her lover grabbed more firmly at her waist.
“Idiots tend to think that teasing is the be-all and end-all to public life,” the shaggy-haired man said as his dog paused to pee on the spokes of a bicycle wheel.
“We need you to go there if that’s what she wants,” “My loving son waits for no man or beast,” “My theory is you believe and you do so willingly.” These salvaged, recycled, or repurposed phrases crisscrossed Daphne’s path like missiles illuminating the night sky over a foreign capital, in a faraway war that had suddenly come home.