Daphne returned from the movie to find her cubicle under assault by a ringing phone.
“I have something of yours.” It was Eugenie.
“You’re a thief.”
“You left tape recorder so why not you come and get it?”
“You can keep it.”
“Why not come?” the mistress goaded. “We have good time. My friend Simon is here.”
“Who else is there?”
“Just us,” she said coyly. “Simon, how you like my moules marinière?”
“Madam,” Simon’s voice could be heard from a distance, “again you have outdone yourself.”
“What’s going on there?”
“Simon is dining on red dragon plates.”
“What’s he doing there by himself?”
“If you come to get recorder,” said Eugenie, “he won’t be by himself.”
Daphne was out on the street hailing a cab. It was already taking forever despite shortcuts and more shortcuts and a hop onto the Mystic Valley Parkway, east on Route 16 toward the Mecca of Everett/Revere, premature left on Locust Street heading north beyond the Meadow Glen Mall, some maneuvering through awkwardly narrow streets-off-streets. It took way too long—more than forty-five minutes—to get to the raggedy crimson walkway canopy, its brittle icicle lights like the finer parts of a deconstructed skeleton.
She pushed the doorbell and no one answered. She pushed again. She put her finger on the ringer nub and kept it there.
Finally a man opened the door wide. He was ordinary-looking in a dark suit; his being somewhat overweight caused the suit to tent and pucker here and there, come off cheaper than it probably was. He wore wire-frame glasses and looked to be in his early forties, with reddish, thinning hair cut short. The tie fabric was flashy like fifties drapery material; the shirt collar seemed to be choking him, a dull blade held against the flab.
“I came to take Simon home,” she told him.
He smiled. “Oh?” It was not a welcoming smile.
“Daphne?” came Simon’s voice, frail-sounding from the interior.
“Come right on in,” said the man. “He’s in there bitching, bitching, bitching like an old queen.”
She gave a start before entering. The voice was unmistakable.
“Simon,” she shouted, rushing into the foyer, looking both right and left before settling left, the room with the Steinway. Today there were no radios or televisions blaring.
“Where’s Eugenie?” she asked the old man, who, though standing, seemed in terrible disarray. He held a cloth napkin that he’d been using to blot his forehead.
“At the Greyhound terminal,” said the man as he walked in from the foyer, “drumming up business.” His hands were in his pockets, sending the suit fabric into odd contortions as it ballooned around the groin.
“Did Trygve drive you here?” she asked Simon.
“He and the dog!” he exclaimed, thrusting the hand holding the napkin into the pocket of his suit jacket but missing; he did this twice more before achieving success.
“What were you doing?” she asked, turning to look at the assailant.
“Healthy debate,” he replied. “You know what that is?”
“It doesn’t look healthy for Simon,” she said. “He needs to go home.”
“Do you need to go home, Simon?” he mocked.
“This offensive mammal is Winkill,” said Simon.
“Let’s sit down on that sofa,” said Daphne, trying to lead the old man away.
He looked Daphne in the eye and then gripped her arms with each of his hands, which caused him to stumble forward, her presence preventing him from falling. “I know quite well what I’m doing, Daphne.”
“Simon’s got his mojo back!” Winkill yelled in laughter, clapping twice. “Everyone grab your balls and watch your ass!”
“You’re a disgrace,” said Simon, “and history will prove me right.”
“All that history will prove is that it fucked up in letting you live so long.”
“Stop talking to him like that,” Daphne ordered.
“Haven’t you read any history books lately?” he went on, looking at Simon. “You’re a fucking failure. Your ‘life’s achievement’—hoo-ha-hoo—was to piss away American capital and set the country back a hundred years. I knew more than you when I was fourteen.”
“You’re a selfish little pig of a human,” said Simon.
“Hey, hey, now—mustn’t be nasty, Simon. Just because that shriveled brain of yours can’t comprehend anything beyond taxation and the Mommy Fed. Your fucking notion of government is to make me wear a helmet on my Harley, tell me where I can invest my retirement securities and how much water should be in my toilet when I take a piss. Your government steals from my paycheck to subsidize the loser fatsos at abortion clinics who scare girls into having their babies sucked out from between their legs because they think they’ll wind up loser fatsos themselves.”
“You’re a simplistic man,” Simon declared. “You see the affluent culture that government programs and fair taxation have made accessible in this country since the New Deal, but you don’t want that affluence for all Americans. You only want more and more for the white and greedy. Your objective is to speak as a child all through adulthood. You have many fantasies but no imagination.”
“Listen to you with the New Deal!” he cried. “You’re the only fuck on earth willing to say those words. Don’t you know they’re equal to child pornography?”
“Roosevelt was the greatest political leader liberalism had,” said Simon.
“You better be afraid, old man, of saying the name Roosevelt in public, or I’ll brand you a Bolshie. It worked with McCain, and he’s far righter than you. Friedman was right. You suck.”
“Stop talking to him like that!” yelled Daphne.
“Frosty the permabear!” Winkill went on. “Always nipping at the heels of the Chicago people, always bitching out the real brains of the operation. Now, who was it you supported for president in ’68? Oh, that’s right. Eu-gene McCarthy. Well ain’t that special. And who were your wet-dream heroes? Hymie Minsky and Citizen Keynes.”
“John Maynard Keynes was the most brilliant economist who ever articulated a theory,” said Simon.
“Keynes is nothing more than an old-school fag. Got it? The queer’s been outed as a sham.”
“You’re the sham!” Simon shouted. “You are completely imbecilic about the threat of global warming.”
“Please, Simon,” said Daphne. “Don’t even argue with him.”
“Wanna know what you can do with your fucking carbon tax? You just keep your hands off my land and I’ll take care of it. I’ll take care of the air over my land while state parks turn into cesspools around the Bronx Expressway. The fucking balls of these Gore people, these Greenpeace nutjobs, thinking they can tell me what kind of car to drive. What do these fucking CAFE standards do but prevent everyone form having bigger, safer cars? In five years all these cheap-ass Civics will be off the road.”
“In five years your Lexington Group will be off the road!” shouted Simon.
“The Lexington Group is the only thing that will keep this country from another apocalypse.”
“I’ll tell you what will be an apocalypse,” said Simon. “We cannot get into some mad war in the Middle East that will bring us into a quagmire of untold dimensions. The Bush tax cuts have already set the nation on a path of debt creation, and a war of this sort will only make the debt astronomical. The country cannot become engaged in this kind of debt creation and completely insane market speculation and not see apocalypse.”
“You never did tell me why Eugenie,” said Winkill. “What’s the old bitch doing for you?”
“I said stop talking like that,” said Daphne.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” he replied, mock-gallant. “Did I say old bitch? What I meant was old witch. He’s seeing the old witch to maybe fix his legacy perhaps? Well, let me tell you this: Gramps is a fuckup—at economics, at writing about Camus, at making any woman happy, at playing the piano with more than one monkey paw.”
“I’ve had quite enough of this!” shouted Simon, who walked, now swaying, toward the enticing spectacle of the piano. He leaned against its glistening black finish to catch his breath, propping himself up with an arm. Then he pulled his weight around to fall onto the padded bench.
It was painful to watch; Daphne rushed to his side as he knocked twice against the fall board with his knuckle.
“That’s right, Liberace,” said Winkill. “You go ahead and play us a tune.”
Daphne put a hand on his shoulder. “Ignore him, Simon.”
He stretched the spindly fingers of his hands and allowed them to fall heavily onto the keys.
“Ouch!” cried Winkill.
He made chord changes that his immediate cessation identified as errors. He removed his shaky hands and rubbed them on his lap. He began again and somehow found a sound that he pressed and pressed to make happen.
“I’m not hearing anything,” said Winkill, shaking his head.
It was “Honeysuckle Rose” that Simon played chaotically and now faster.
“Why did you write those Camus books anyway?” asked Winkill.
Simon bore down on the piano in a way that took everything from him, like the horse he’d been put on was immediately slapped.
“Please stop now, Simon,” said Daphne.
“Is that what you wanted to be when you grew up?” asked Winkill. “Camus and not a hog counter?”
It was a chaos of sound coming from the Steinway, a cacophony caused by one man’s efforts to give evidence of an indistinguishable love of life. There’d be beauty, a splash of notes, but then it was quashed by his desperation to hold on. Simon’s long torso could not withstand the strain.
“You fucked up, old man!”
“Stop it!” yelled Daphne.
“Camus died fast and sexy—and young. Whereas you—the straw’s been leaking out of you for years.”
“Go away!” she cried.
Simon’s hands banged the keys laboriously but also clung to the effort of playing like a cat’s claws on the edge of a roof.
“Fats is yelping in his grave!” yelled Winkill.
Daphne could not stop the tears. “Get the hell out of here!”
And then, the terrible climax—the hands, the elbows, every part of Simon toppled onto the keys, the world market collapsing and crashing in a single sound. Something inside him was breaking; the center was not holding. Though she had not the presence to look, it was obvious that Winkill had run off—like a pickpocket, a purse-snatcher, a petty thief.
All she could do was try to prevent Simon from breaking his neck as he fell sideways off the stool. He was on his back and gagging for air; she didn’t know which position would prevent life from draining out. She looked about frantically wondering where the woman would keep a phone. There was no way of finding a phone in a stranger’s house anymore. His hand was gripping hers as if she was the means of all life. And then she noticed the bulking weight in his jacket pocket. She grabbed inside and clutched within the napkin his blue phone. It glowed even before she pulled it open and proceeded with 911 once and nothing and then over and over until DAPHNE somehow appeared on its brilliant screen. It hit her voicemail after five rings but she managed to get the DAPHNE back again. Oh please oh please oh please, she chanted between rings. Oh please oh please. This time she heard Andy’s voice: “Daphne’s line.”
She was no comforter, least of all to the dying. His eyes had rolled back, everything had rolled back. Her coat was wadded under his head; that was all she could do. “Hang on, Simon,” she told him. “Help is coming.” She thought back to the afternoon’s movie, Les Diaboliques, a million miles away from this moment; she thought back to the two women drowning the cruel man in the bathtub and then having to handle the corpse. She held her hand on Simon’s pulse but now her perceptions were so compromised that she couldn’t tell if she really felt anything pounding. How could anyone bear to be there when life fell away, when a body became a corpse? “People are coming, Simon. An ambulance is on its way.”
She heard a siren get nearer and nearer. It frightened her even though it was the only answer to this equation. The EMTs entered—obviously the door was wide open—as if they made rescue attempts at this address every day.
“His son dropped him here,” she told the three men as they worked, “and I don’t know where he went.”
None paused long enough for an expression of bad or worse to register on his face.
“What is it?” she asked. “What happened?”
None stopped to look at her. “Stroke or heart attack.”
As the stretcher slammed down the canopied walkway, Trygve’s black SUV came to a halt behind the blinking red lights of the ambulance parked outside 114 Providence Street. Trygve got out of the car faster than Daphne had ever seen him move. “I’ll go with him,” he yelled even before he could see who it was being wheeled on the stretcher.
Simon’s long body slid into the back of the ambulance like it was a toy part that worked that way. Trygve disappeared into the vehicle as well.
The door on the driver’s side of the SUV remained open as the ambulance sped away in urgency.
“Hey, earth to you!” yelled a woman snapping her fingers. She had apparently slid over to take the wheel and now stood up outside. Her head and the phone attached to it were visible over the roof. “If you wanna lift to the hospital, get in now.”
Daphne looked back at the house, bending her knees to make sure she could see up beyond the canopy that the front door was closed, and then got in the car.