“If I don’t frighten, things don’t get done, people don’t get changed”—another college kid whose hunger for story made him a Pixar rendition of himself. “So unlike the noble decade of Dr. King!” Jan’s words were barely recognizable coming from the Asian shopkeeper smoking outside her dry cleaners.
Daphne had survived another run of the gauntlet to enter a cobblestone alleyway abutted by top-heavy, Tudor-like row houses—a.k.a. the home of the West Cambridge Ludenberrys. She stopped at the number Elijah had given and was greeted by a woman brusquely exiting the front door—petite, sixty-ish, pastel-colored pantsuit, short haircut that an academic might consider stylish.
“Ellen Ludenberry,” the woman declared. Daphne’s instinct was to object that she was not in fact Ellen Ludenberry, but instead she shook the hand thrust at her, nodding when the woman added, “You must be part of Elijah’s little group.” She pointed Daphne up a short flight of stairs beyond the flagstone foyer. “Tell him he’s not permitted to bore anyone to death with his drollery.”
“In here, whoever!” Elijah called out when Daphne reached the top of the stairs. She stood in yet another foyer leading to several rooms that could have been attractive if not for too many brashly placed souvenirs and collectibles.
“I guess whoever must be me,” she said upon entering a dark-paneled room.
Elijah sat in a massive upholstered chair of an amazingly vivid green velour, like new-growth moss, crammed between two sofas of faded chintz. Without his beret, he resembled a small animal caught sniffling about a garden, the kind that could easily be swallowed whole by an animal not much bigger than itself.
“Did you meet the dreaded Mrs. Danvers?”
She laughed. “I didn’t know she was called that.”
“She’s trying to make my hapless nephew a social climber like herself.”
“But he’s already culturally famous,” she said. “He doesn’t need to climb.”
Conrad Ludenberry had just won a Pulitzer for a book it took him fourteen years to write. It was about Einstein’s belief in the four-dimensionality of the universe, in the past and the future existing in concord.
Elijah sighed deeply. “She’s only consented to babysit me for the connection it provides to Simon and Linus. Without them I’m nothing.”
Walking the gauntlet, Daphne had anticipated having this private moment to tell Elijah about Eugenie’s tricks, seeking his help. But now her heart felt full for the man. She could not unload her burden. “Please don’t say that.”
“She runs the Pimpernel School for Girls, off Brattle Street.”
Everyone knew that school because the tuition was as much as Harvard’s. “My boss calls it the School for Pimply Girls,” she said, hoping it might console him.
He laughed. “Jean Brodie’s rejects.”
“Do they have kids, the Ludenberrys?”
“Alexandra and Alexander—better known as Alex-girl and Alex-boy. Luckily for themselves, they’re grown and sprung.”
“Is that a housekeeper?” Daphne asked, for she could hear someone—a woman, young-sounding—speaking Spanish in another part of the house.
“Indentured servants,” he replied, “an entire family of girls without papers by the name of Anguiano. Mrs. Danvers keeps them confined to the kitchen and bath and provides instructions en Espagnol on how they should microwave my gruel three times a day.”
“Does she at least pay them well?”
“I pay them,” he replied, “and I would say that it’s well, though I am the world’s oldest living cheapskate.”
She looked at him.
“Yes, I know you’re surprised that a decrepit sod like me would have anything left of his acorn stash. But if another of their boys needs braces, we’ll all be out on the street.”
The doorbell rang with an Avon ding-dong, and in a flash—a chipmunk spied from the corner of your eye—the body of the voice from elsewhere could be seen scampering across the top foyer and presumably down the stairs to the bottom one to answer the door. Elijah looked at Daphne: “She usually does that while shaking a daiquiri.”
“She doesn’t have to rush to open the door when I’m here to do it.”
“That’s our Celestia, always making everyone else look bad.”
Daphne went down to see an irate Simon giving the girl a hard time. “My better half has again ‘stuck’ the car,” he shouted on seeing Daphne, “and is in dire need of someone’s ‘unstucking’ it to her advantage.” In his perturbation, he seemed even spindlier in his exaggerated height, like he was a delivery just assembled from flat parts in two large boxes.
Daphne left him to Celestia and walked down the alleyway to find Linus and Susan Frost, the evacuees, staring at the car’s predicament, which Jan’s place behind the wheel hadn’t remedied.
“Oh, you!” Susan Frost exclaimed in her Bette Davis rasp. “Jan, please, surrender your position to someone with working eyes.”
“Yet another stalemate,” Linus said with a sigh.
Jan opened the door and began the valiant assault of getting out of a car. “You need to get her on the road before the sun goes down,” he shouted at Daphne, “or she’ll turn into a werewolf!”
“Susan won’t drive after dark,” Linus informed Daphne.
“Don’t ever get old,” Susan said idly but in a bitter tone. “You can’t see a goddamned thing.”
“Language!” Jan yelled, his presumed intention to toss Daphne the keys yielding a stark thud on her chest.
“Oh, language yourself,” Susan pooh-poohed. “My new car already has another gnash on its chin and I’m fit to be tied.”
Daphne managed to extract and right the Lexus with the help of Celestia’s “Dele, dele. No, espere—¡muy lejos, muy lejos!” When she had positioned the car as would a valet outside a restaurant, Susan Frost cheered. “Well, hooray finally!” Her petite form was so rigid that she moved like a South Park character—no visible means of lower-body locomotion.
“My son is scheduled to collect them in an hour’s time,” she informed Daphne as she got into the car, “but if he fails, Simon has the number of a limousine service to call instead. It’s in his wallet. If he says he can’t find it, take his wallet and look yourself.”
Daphne returned to find the dark-paneled study thick with old men and silver trays of powder-coated cookies and stacked petit-fours. As she maneuvered to sit down among them and their mugs of tea, she realized how much she’d missed their company. She pulled out her notebook and pen, heading directly into the headlights.
Linus was distressed by the secretary of state. “In my day,” he lamented, “diplomats played for both sides.”
“Tell that to the jackals in this administration!” yelled Jan. “One of them gets sent to the U.N. and they need to nail down the furniture!”
“What would Churchill say to today’s vindictiveness?” wondered Linus. “When he was young, he was close friends with his main political rival, F. E. Smith, and the two founded the Other Club, a social group for both parties.”
“I’m having a difficult time imagining Paul Wolfowitz in an Other Club with Jacques Chirac,” Elijah said bitterly.
“Chirac?” exclaimed Jan. “What about an Other Club with Ayatollah Khamenei?”
“I keep telling you,” Linus said with exasperation. “This isn’t about religion.”
“The Crusades and the Inquisition,” said Simon, “the religious wars in France, the English civil war, the ravages of the Ottoman empire, the Troubles in Northern Ireland, the slaughter in Sarajevo, and now Islamic extremism. Enough already!”
Jan laughed. “Yes, religious history is bloody, vicious, soul-cheapening, but I will fight the Hobbesians tooth and claw!”
Here we go again, Daphne thought. Martin Luther, Martin Buber, Martin Heidegger, Reinhold Niebuhr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Eric the Bold, Vlad the Impaler—everything but the meat and potatoes of why glowing blue phones mean contact with the hereafter.
Now Linus appeared deeply troubled. “The crisis the four of us constantly lash out against is the disintegration of Enlightenment culture. And the United States is leading the world on this.”
“All of Enlightenment thinking,” said Jan, “was based on the belief that Christianity would change from faith-based reality to reality-based faith.”
“Three decades after the war,” said Linus, “there was a plateau of consensus. Mainline faiths, unions, Rotarians.”
Simon scoffed. “Rampant racism, discrimination, abject poverty, infant mortality.”
“And then came Reagan,” said Elijah, “the doddering Pied Piper of the Banality of Evil.”
“The Gospel of Wealth!” cried Jan. “The Gospel of Self-Dealing!”
“The Gospel of Ignorance!” cried Simon. “Fox television blatantly lies about history and science so that there is no faith in reality. Morons on the right are fascinated with self-serving miracles. Where do you suppose this magical thinking will take us a decade from now, from 2003?”
Daphne did not want to think about a decade from now. Elijah seemed to notice her distress. “Daphne, do you remember whose context and syntax I asked that you attribute to me?”
“Precisely. Bertrand Russell said he could think of only two useful contributions religion made to civilization: It helped to fix the calendar, and it made Egyptian priests observe eclipses carefully enough to predict them.”
“Elijah!” Jan shouted buoyantly. “What of those great visions of Isaiah—every person fed, no more strife, the ill healed, enslaved peoples released?”
“Do you need a religion to envision human happiness?” he replied.
Simon added sternly, “Wanting people fed and warfare ended—is that ‘happiness’ or an expected level of moral decency?”
“Bucky would say the latter,” Linus offered.
“Correct!” yelled Simon. “And so say I, we, us! Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs—nothing to do with human happiness.”
“So how would you define happiness?” Linus asked him.
Simon thought for a moment. “As Smith wrote in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, ‘The chief part of human happiness arises from the consciousness of being loved.’ ”
The group took well to this suggestion until Elijah weighed in: “And for Americans, that happiness can also be achieved from the consciousness of being loved by oneself.”
“I have to agree with Elijah,” Daphne averred. “Lots of happy narcissists out there.”
“A God who doesn’t view human happiness as the reason for creation?” asked Jan. “Who wants that kind of God? But that is the very God the nonbelievers take aim at, not seeing the singular paradox of religious faith.”
“Which is?” snapped Simon.
“That happiness lies in our renouncing the right to be happy.”
Another sustained silence—and again the group seemed to expect something from Daphne.
“I think I’ve renounced the right to be happy,” she declared, “but I don’t think it has made me happy.”
Jan smiled at her. “So many faults you have!”
“What are your faults?” asked Simon.
“Yeah, Daph,” Elijah immediately chimed in, “tell us what they are.”
“Make a list!” said Jan.
“We will number them,” said Elijah, “one through ten.”
“That’s what you now must do in a job interview,” Linus offered. “Be artful with your self-disclosed faults.”
“Good faults or bad, Daphne?” Simon pressed.
“Yeah,” Elijah added with glee. “Good witch or a bad?”
“One through ten!” Jan bellowed.
Daphne cast her eyes about the dark study. The sofas’ faded chintz was a horizontal blur, like a sequence of crude hyphens connecting the bodies of Simon, Jan, and Linus, although the velour chair enveloping Elijah looked as garden-green as ever.
“One,” she began warily. “I hide from the official world, the world of accurate numbers and precision.”
“We’ll buy that,” said Elijah.
That one was cribbed, for “the world of accurate numbers and precision” had been Andy’s phrase during her last performance review.
“Two,” she continued. “I intentionally make my world hazy—occluded would be the SAT word—to serve as cover while I try to win by my own means.”
“That’s a clever fault,” observed Simon. “I might have to steal it for my own.”
Elijah laughed. “Had you any faults to begin win!”
“So what are these ‘means’ of yours?” asked Jan.
“Three,” she went on. “My means have proved to be woefully inadequate.”
“Ha!” shouted Jan.
“Four: But I pigheadedly use them nonetheless.”
“The girl’s not even benefiting from our proffered wisdom!” Simon declared, throwing up his hands.
“Five,” she continued. “I refuse to take advice. Six: And thus I make more and more blunders. Seven: And my blunders require a murkier and murkier atmosphere—”
“Occlusion!” said Jan with a laugh.
“Like that most dreaded meteorological forecast,” added Linus. “Widespread haze.”
“Yes,” she continued, “widespread haze, so as to provide adequate cover.”
“What’s all this ‘cover’ business?” Simon wanted to know. “Who on earth do you think is after you?”
“Yeah, Daph,” said Elijah, “who is it has their guns pointed at your hide?”
She couldn’t answer that. “Eight: I need the right cover to hide from the world.” She noticed that no one was taking any of this down. “I don’t face my demons,” she continued. “That would be nine.”
“And ten?” asked Jan.
“Ten is that I don’t know what my demons are.”
“That sounds like a girl in trouble!” cried Simon.
Daphne looked at Linus. “I told you I wasn’t the real thing.”
“We think you are,” he replied.
“The real thing who’s hearing demon voices!” cried Jan.
She was startled. “I’m NOT hearing demon voices,” she argued, looking at Linus.
“I asked our group for advice on your situation,” he casually explained.
“So are you afraid?” asked Simon.
“No,” she replied faintly.
“Not of anything?” Jan shouted.
“Yes, I’m afraid of things,” she admitted, “but I know what I fear.”
“You just got through telling us you don’t what your demons are!” Simon yelled.
“Yes,” she said, feeling even more confused. “Yes, and I guess I’m afraid of that.”
“Knowing the thing you fear is the best way to live in the past!” Jan preached.
She felt abandoned. Where was Elijah when she needed him? “Everyone lives in the past partly,” she reasoned, “because how can you not?”
“My friend Cartier-Bresson says that the past always comes back to you,” Linus said, “like a burp.”
“Or the compulsion to cry over boxes of candies!” Jan shouted.
It took a moment for her to realize what he meant. “I was crying over lost cats.”
“I believe that’s the equivalent of crying over spilt milk,” said Simon.
Why were they suddenly on her case, ganging up in a nasty maneuver that her brother would call a full-court press? Why was she suddenly the one with the problem?
“Whose cats were these that made you cry?” asked Linus.
Elijah mused in a singsong tone, “Whose cats these are I think I know . . . ”
“We were asking Daphne!” Simon yelled.
“A friend’s,” she replied.
“Which friend?” asked Linus.
“I can’t remember.”
“What do you mean you can’t remember?” Jan shouted. “You remembered the cats’ names!”
“X, Y, or Z,” she said. “What does it matter?”
“To Y it would matter,” Linus observed, “so as not to be mistaken for Z.”
“OK,” Daphne conceded, “let’s call him X.”
“What is the X for?” asked Elijah.
“I don’t know.”
More silence, but not the good kind. They were reloading.
“X has to stand for something,” said Simon.
“If you simultaneously press control and X on your keyboard,” she said, “that cuts the text you have highlighted.”
“I can do that!” Elijah exclaimed.
Simon clapped sarcastically: “Still in retention of his marbles!”
Jan leaned forward like the crotchety senator who’d just backed a shell-shocked Supreme Court nominee into a corner. “Where is your home, Daphne Passerine?” His voice sounded like Boris Karloff’s.
“You know I live in Somerville.”
“I mean your real home, the place you feel you belong.”
She feared his question leading to another revelation of failure. “I don’t think I have one.”
“The German word Heimat has no good English equivalent,” he said. “None! It means homeland—less in the nationalistic sense than that related to language, earliest childhood experiences, the sense of being part of a clan or tribe.”
She shook her head.
“Heimat,” he continued, “as emotion, is elemental, a gut feeling of belonging—one that provincials who travel abroad feel in jeopardy, so in that respect it would appear to be the antithesis of all that is modern. But! It is also felt as being invested with a purpose—and one by no means of one’s choosing—endowed with a mission! a search for a path! an arc of life! a completion!—to be born, to turn, to turn again, to return as a native.”
“So your tour of duty is not ‘Go out! Conquer the world!’ ” Simon observed with a sour face, “but ‘Go back home!’? I don’t think I like your Heimat.”
“For me,” Jan argued, “Heimat is the German language, Father Tongue of Schiller and Goethe, Goebbels and Goering. My life became auf deutsch during the war. That’s how Maja and I communicated. We were married by a Dutch magistrate who spoke Deutsch to impress a Sicherheitsdienst agent waiting in the wings with his collaborator bride. The language was neither mine nor hers, but our speaking what we had learned for the purpose of intellectual rigor—speaking amid the Moffen butchering our friends and kindred—made it feel like a place, a sanctuary, a home.”
Linus cleared his throat. “Agree.”
“Daphne needs to look for that,” Jan continued, “where it is, this place, this sanctuary.”
The past suddenly returned to the group not as Cartier-Bresson’s burp but as a horn—Trygve Frost’s horn being beaten by Trygve Frost’s fist.
For once, Daphne welcomed the premature conclusion of the Quartet’s hour. As the four contributed to the generalized scuttle of standing, she couldn’t help but glance at her wrist.
“And what does our Alice say?” asked Linus.
“She says it’s still two hours ago.”
“Pawn it and wire the money!” bellowed Jan.
“Oh, that Father Time,” said Elijah.
“That Father Time out in the car charges by the half-hour!” Simon scoffed.
Daphne’s stewardship at getting the men geared up for outside could only be described as feeble, especially her attempts to expedite clearance of the stairs. By the time the last of the three had been loaded into the car Trygve had perilously backed into the alleyway, she almost forgot how so they had upset her. After she went back inside and up the stairs, it all came back.
“I can’t believe Linus told you I was hearing demon voices,” she said, sitting on the sofa.
“That was Jan’s embellishment,” said Elijah.
“Do you all think I’m crazy? Is that why you ganged up on me?”
“I really am hearing things. I may be losing my mind.”
“We shall take you to see Oliver Saks,” he proposed.
“Helloo!” came a voice from the stairwell, punctuated by the closing of the front door.
Elijah leaned toward Daphne to whisper, “Mrs. Danvers of the School for Pimply Girls.”
Momentarily Ellen Ludenberry and her pastel pantsuit appeared at the room’s threshold. “Here I had rushed home,” she complained, “and made this Olympian effort to get ready for this dinner at the Charles, and wouldn’t you know I had the night wrong!” She looked around the room and made a pout. “Oh dear, have I missed them?”
“Oh, boohoo!” Elijah exclaimed.
“Oh boohoo yourself,” she replied, waving a hand. “And now if you’ll excuse me I need to finagle some kind of dinner reservation and head my husband off at the pass.”
When she disappeared, Daphne whispered, “She’s not that bad.”
“Contained within her element, no.”
“Mistress Eugenie, on the other hand, is bad news.”
He thought on this. “The people who believe in her—confide in her—say that something about her demeanor brings them to self-knowledge.”
“Can’t you do that with psychotherapy?”
“Talking about the past is not my idea of a good time.”
“OK,” she consented, “so maybe you write it instead, in a memoir.”
“Robert Lowell said talking about the past was like trying to get a cat to climb down a ladder.”
She didn’t want to talk about the past either.
He sighed. “I’m afraid I’m exhausted, Daphne.”
She felt bad for detaining him from comfort.
“Please don’t think I’m kicking you out,” he said.
She smiled. “I’d never think that.”
“One last thing,” he said with a strained look of concern. “You need to remember to press control-V.”
She was genuinely surprised.
“Yes, I know you’re impressed. Control-V is for victory, Daphne, so you can retrieve the parts that you cut from your story.”