Chapter 17

It wasn’t long after Daphne left the Ludenberrys’ that she was on Massachusetts Avenue heading toward Porter Square, where We the People were armed with phones. “Every era’s a rude era!” and “Do you need a religion to envision human happiness?” She recognized the Quartet’s words, though they didn’t work so well coming from the mouths of strangers.

It seemed likely she was going crazy, but it nonetheless saddened her to think that Elijah could be considered nothing more than a social pawn. In his time and place, he was much more than a critic. McCarthy’s committee called him to testify in 1956, the same time as his friend Arthur Miller. Like Miller, he didn’t name names. They took him back at Columbia in 1963, but he struggled to make up for time, to get work published. He stood by old friends through ruined careers and wrecked families. All this concurrent with Linus’s staking the parameters of the cold war, establishing the CIA’s covert operations—America’s “unblinking eye on Asia.” That these two men were friends was in some sense preposterous.

He was from Schenectady, the son of an alcoholic switchman and a mother lost young to the influenza epidemic. He made his name as a sentimental Marxist with a profound love of Manhattan. Lionel Trilling betrayed him at Columbia; he survived a terrible marriage to the brilliant, tragic Marjorie Swain. He was a “Larkin scholar” before any existed, before the old sod was canonized. Daphne loved his book on Hardy for what it said about the cyclical nature of time in Return of the Native—the ancient heath, the rites of fertility and sacrifice going back to pre-Christian inhabitants. He could make you feel excited to be thinking about prose: “Our lives don’t belong to us; we merely play the role of enactors in a circle of primitive animal force.”

No one should be a social pawn, least of all a man possessing that kind of conjuring power with language. But how relevant, really, were the ideas and opinions of Elijah and even Linus and Simon in the world of 2003? And Jan, she thought—he wouldn’t even make it onto a roster of Who Was let alone Who’s Who. If they weren’t living in Cambridge, they’d probably be diagnosed with dementia for their ability to recite from memory. As paranormal occurrences go, this one seemed to her especially strange given that no one had to memorize anything anymore. The brilliant people of today—with their big-picture outside-the-box thinking—disparaged the acquisition of any skill that tech could handle, whereas the classical intellect of the Quartet was based on memorization. They had the necessary mental pathways from decades of use. Their abilities would die with them.

“Tell that to the jackals in this administration!” in one direction and “Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs—nothing to do with human happiness” in another. If all the Quartet did was quote to Daphne, the world was now quoting the quoters. What quotes did she know by heart? The rhyming poems of high school, the gemstones of Frost, adages from Wallace Stevens, Emily Dickinson’s phrases between dashes, the excruciating parts of Yeats and Keats, a smattering of Shakespeare soliloquies, Lincoln nuggets here and there. Stray lines come unloosed from the hairpins—that was the gist of her Ph.D. She now remembered Joyce’s “Snow was general all over Ireland” only because it had begun to snow.

It did seem likely she was going crazy, but given the way she lived, what did it matter? Why not be crazy if you were already an emotional hermit? Here she was trying to protect the reputations of these famous men, yet her own psychological deterioration was occurring beyond anyone’s hearing or seeing. Who’d care to know she was losing her mind—Andy? Paul? Should she call her brother?

“Does your brother think the separation affected his life the way it did yours?” The nonbeliever had wanted to know this. It was dark that time, under the recent tenting of leaves—spring, mid-May. She remembered umbrellas of dogwoods in bloom, their domes popping out startlingly under the orange-hued streetlights.

“I don’t really know,” she said. “He always says I think too much. He means I’m wasting thought-time on something fixed in time.”

They were walking down a red-brick sidewalk on a dark street. He couldn’t believe she’d never seen the two bronze rhinos outside the Harvard Bio Labs, so they were going there.

“Nothing’s fixed in time,” he replied.

She was by then used to his abstractions. “Paul and I are very close.”

“You said you don’t confide in him much.” He laughed. “You’re both Scorpios.”

“Scorpios don’t like to talk on the phone,” she said. “But we’re still close.”

“I always wondered how close my sister and I would’ve been.”

So much of what he said seemed like a gold key to a lock-clasp diary—you insert to hear a tiny ping, to release all the other conversations that never got finished.

“You really believe in ghosts?” she asked.

“You can entertain pursuits without belief coming into it. I like to think about ghosts and spirits—whether I believe they are empirical entities is irrelevant.”

“Physicists don’t normally talk like that.”

He held out his hand as he walked, feeling for the concise, waxy leaves of a hedge. He was too shy to hold her hand even after they’d been sleeping together for months. He was savoring the dark—she could feel it in his restraint, from the words he wasn’t jumping in with.

“I think there’s a force always working on us,” he said, “to keep us going back to relive something. You can’t really call it ‘unhealthy’ when it’s inevitable. Something happens, and of all the ways you can respond, some are way better than others. There may even be a best way. But we can only react one way, and some luck out by hitting it. The rest of us keep going back.”

Though Daphne usually wanted the past to go away, she believed in cycles; they both did. She loved the Emerson essay “Circles”: “Our life is an apprenticeship to the truth that around every circle another can be drawn; that there is no end in nature, but every end is a beginning.” He thought that something important was lost with the obsolescence of vinyl records—how without this visualization people would not think of music as something that goes round and round, with old parts and new in continuous motion. He knew music; he played the guitar since he was twelve. He thought it important to see an album as swirling into the center, not as any number of static, straight-line things called songs. He talked about the well-known association between math and guitar chords. He’d always jokingly add “and Chicago.”

She remembered an early summer day they were driving to Gloucester, to Woodman’s for clams, all the Caddy’s windows down. In that retro, wide sedan under a clear blue sky, she felt they had time-traveled into a “Happy Motoring!” ad. He suggested listening to olden times on ’FNX. “I’ll give you five bucks if it’s Michael Stipe,” he said before pressing scan. And it was Billy Corgan—even better! Since they both knew some of the words, they didn’t have to be embarrassed.

“This song affects me the same way as ‘Someone Save My Life Tonight,’ ” she said, “the Elton John song. I don’t know why.”

“I do,” he replied. “It’s the premature nostalgia for something existing in the present, a love option ostensibly still on the table but the singer knows it’s really not. It’s an ode to the precise amount of time before doubt sets in, before the cancer has colonized a critical mass.”

She laughed. “That’s pretty grim. But you’re right. We can’t feel that strongly about something that’s not ephemeral. In songs like this, it’s never a person but the time that breaks your heart.”

“I feel like time is the answer to every question,” he said, seeming to her so happy. “You can tell that even though Billy wants to believe what he’s professing—that the ‘you’ he presumably loves can make the feeling last forever—he can’t. That’s why it’s tragic and we’re embarrassed years later for unknowingly knowing the lines. You’re right. It’s not about a person; it’s about all the things we try to substitute for a nonexistent afterlife.”

She laughed. “You mean you don’t believe love will make you immortal?”

“My father always said, ‘All a scientist can hope is that love will make him human.’ ”

That night they were headed to see the rhinos he paused in front of a house on Francis Avenue; it had dark stained shingles and an overhang. His eyes were drawn to the lighted second-floor windows, three small ones with square panes and lace curtains.

“Someday,” he told her, “we’ll have a house with curtains like that. So that people stop on the street in the dark and say, ‘I wonder who lives there.’ ”

At Porter Station, Daphne stood on the concourse outside the entrance, at a spot good for making echoes. She had thought she was going to walk past—up and over—as she always did. But something gave her pause. She sang ever so faintly, “Tomorrow’s just an ex—cuse away.”

She made the snap decision to get on the subway headed for Boston, with the intention of dropping by the apartment of some old friends, a couple she was close to before things changed. They’d just had a baby and didn’t have enough room. Perhaps she would tell them and their crowded baby about the “voices,” about the four famous members of the Quartet and their blue phones, about Mistress Eugenie possibly being behind everything. They might not relish the surprise attack, but they could just tell her to go away. This was a good spontaneous move, wasn’t it?—a move most unlike the bad spontaneous ones to which troubled minds are prone.

She sat across from a young couple in partial embrace—the girl repeatedly kissing her boyfriend all over his face as he looked down matter-of-factly at his open phone, scrolling through texts as if searching for clues. The girl didn’t seem bothered that her lover’s attention was elsewhere. She also didn’t seem to be kissing him over and over because there wasn’t enough time; it looked to be because there was nothing better to do.

Daphne looked away. What did she want more than anything? Answers. She just wanted to know why. Why, for instance, should so many tragedies strike all members of a single family in the way the one mosquito zipped inside your tent kept biting and biting the same ankle? She didn’t buy the consolation of “faith”—the line that human grieving was all part of some mysterious, intricate plan of a benevolent deity—nor could she stomach the cold and hard explanation of random chance, of bad luck being mere coincidence. She hated coincidence.

She looked again at the bored kisser and wondered how much, really, anyone needed to legitimately feel to sign over her life to another. As a student, she read a haiku by Issa—

Children imitating cormorants—
more wonderful
than cormorants

—and simultaneous translated as

Strangers imitating lovers—
more wonderful
than lovers.

When the train emerged from underground, right before the Longfellow Bridge, the phones came out—one, two, three, a hesitant four. Daphne braced herself as the train slowed to a creep over the bridge and halted, the conductor promising only a momentary delay because of a train directly ahead. It was snowing on the Charles, a fact that one of the callers—a man with an enormous rigid briefcase balanced like a coffee table on his lap—felt obliged to report: “I’m on the Red Line. We’re stuck over the river. It’s snowing. There too?” The man being kissed all over his face sprang to life with his ring-tone: “Yeah?”

These five people were talking their own talk, not the dialogue from Daphne’s life, so wasn’t that a good thing? She made herself keenly aware of this situation: They were all talking their own talk into their phones.

But then, with the train still idle, every voice coming from the mouths of these strangers on their phones turned into the same woman’s voice, as if someone somewhere flipped a master switch. Daphne felt like the deer that lifts its head from the brook and momentarily turns into a lawn ornament. The pause before flight was not a question of whether but where—which way should she run for safety from a single voice coming from every body in sight?

She didn’t know where to look. Was she shocked and afraid enough to stand and scream? She stood abruptly, getting halfway there. But what good would screaming do? They stared at her—the five on their phones and the others who were not. If she was afraid, it was a special way of being afraid. One of Dr. Glazer’s many suggestions was that she might be trying to make her depression into art. Was she “subtle, ready to fight, and creative”? Did she possess a “diversification of moods,” “variety in sadness,” and “refinement in sorrow”? She told him her soul-sickness felt ridiculous and small, yet she woke and there it was, filling her like a beer bottle in a paper bag.

How strange, she thought in a reasonable tone as she sat back down. How strange that these people were speaking in the same voice. And how strange that it was a woman’s voice—strikingly intelligent and yet feminine, with the elegant meter of a past generation, the sound you might hear through headphones at an interactive exhibition at the Smithsonian. How strange and yet how expected that her delusions be kicked up a notch, taken to another tier.

She got off the inbound train at Charles Street and walked down the stairs and up the stairs to wait for an outbound back to Cambridge. On a subway car trundling across the salt-and-pepper bridge, she turned to look at the black river beyond the glass. There in reflection was her familiar expression—no, the voice hadn’t messed with that—but beyond that all she could see was a territory of the mind, like the Seamus Heaney poem where we learn that all life sprang

from salt in tears which the sky-god wept
after he dreamt his solitude was endless.

Even if this was all just a dream of endless solitude, she didn’t have the energy to will herself “Wake up!” This was not the night to “Wake up!” let alone “Only connect.” No, this wasn’t the night for that. This was the night to turn around and go back home—doing exactly what she was doing—endowed with a mission! a search for a path! an arc of life! a completion!

Read next chapter