Queequeg was not a calm dog—nor a happy one from what Daphne could see. She kept reaching her arm as far as she could over the seat to succor his whimpers. Dark in the dark, he’d eagerly sniff her fingertips and then turn in circles, not seeming to want out so much as relief from the breakneck speed.
Trygve’s wife didn’t introduce herself or even ask who Daphne was. She was on the phone when Daphne got into the car and she remained there all the way to Mass. General, even during the Dunkin drive-through. She had stiff hair to her shoulders—blond and white and black and gray and a lot of other colors blended together, like a seasonal floral arrangement. Her cherry-colored suit appeared to have been fitted at an earlier time, for eruptions of something white occurred between every button.
“Huh”—the declarative, not the interrogatory—she offered repeatedly as if coughing for a doctor, although “Unnnnn-believable” was her preferred refrain. Her successive conversations were about real estate, but none seemed to be with clients on either side of the transaction. If not for Queequeg’s sniffing, the ride would have made Daphne feel invisible.
After Trygve’s wife had pulled into a space in the parking garage and got out, Daphne mustered the courage to interrupt the conversation. “Can you leave the back window down a crack for him?”
She stared at Daphne while continuing to listen to her phone, like the request had been the weightiest deliberation in the world. When she leaned back into the car and placed the coffee cup in the cup holder, Daphne realized that that’s what the momentary indecision had been about—whether or not to bring the coffee into the hospital. Still, she used her long thick fingernail to flick a lever, giving Queequeg a few inches of the air.
Daphne lost track of Trygve’s wife at the colossal revolving doors. She was directed to an emergency room waiting area where she saw Trygve speaking with two doctors. She heard one of the doctors say “stroke” and another “regain consciousness.”
When the doctors spirited themselves away through swinging doors, Trygve looked at Daphne in disgust. “You were listening.”
“Thornton Winkill was there at Eugenie’s,” she said, “having it out with your father.”
“We should call the police.”
“Winkill caused this,” she told him. “He left the scene of a crime.”
“Having a stroke is not a crime.”
“How could you have left him there alone?”
“Get out of our life.”
“This has nothing to do with your life.”
“What are you waiting around for?” he asked. “You think you’re gonna get a cut?”
“I don’t want money,” she said. “I want the truth.”
“They’ll all be dead within a month. That’s the truth.”
“Why did you leave him there alone?”
Trygve’s eyes drifted up and over Daphne’s head, and she turned to see Susan Frost arriving with Abigail, the daughter she had met at Simon’s house. And then beyond them a cherry-colored suit was lumbering along in heel-clacking pursuit. “Su-zaaaan!” Trygve’s wife exclaimed, arms spread wide like a raptor in descent. She hugged the tiny woman, smothering her face in her bosom.
Susan retained her dour expression as Abigail led her toward Trygve, who immediately took to bullying any passing medical personnel to find a doctor to speak to Mrs. Simon Cooper Frost.
A look had claimed Susan’s face—not accusatory, maybe existential. There was no way of knowing whether Das Blaue-Fischreiher-Quartett had expedited or deterred her husband’s demise. She grabbed Daphne’s sleeve in passing, making a fist of the fabric with her knotty, arthritic hand. “God help us.”
Though Daphne had anticipated staying around for the arrival of Linus, Elijah, or Jan if any chose to appear, she knew she had to get out of there. She went to a pay phone to call Andy. When she looked in her bag for change, she saw that she’d taken Simon’s phone.
“Thank you for picking up my line,” she told her boss.
“How is he?”
“He’s had a stroke from what I can tell, and it doesn’t look good.”
“You need to call Paul too,” he said. “I told him what happened.”
“You picked up again?”
“I thought there might be other strokes.”
Something told her to swing by the parking garage to check on Queequeg. When he saw her near the glass he immediately turned toward his tail, spinning his circle faster and faster. Just as she reached into the window crack to try to pet him, her bag rang, causing Queequeg to leap back, away from her and the window. From his look she feared he might growl, so she walked away with the ringing phone. Finally, after a while of this noise, she took out Simon’s phone and opened it.
“Did I happen to tell you that when it’s your time,” said the voice, “it’s ugly and there’s no one to comfort you? Of course for some people it’s fast—bang in the head. The issue is moot. Still, we all need to pay attention to what we’re wearing.”
“Simon is going to die.”
“You’re all going to die, Daphne.”
She held out the phone to look at its brilliant screen—everything blue but no letters, no numbers. “Who are you?”
“What a way to go, huh? Being old. Where’s the drama? Where’s the glamour? None of the intrigue of the tennis ball to the ear that took out Montaigne’s younger brother.”
“Who are you?”
“Don’t throw tennis balls at me—no, wait. I think it’s don’t throw bouquets at me, Daphne Passerine, because you know what? People will say we’re in love. And please don’t—whatever you do—don’t ever, ever, ever liken my voice to that of Mrs. Miniver.”
“Who are you?”
“Did you hear me? From what I recall, Greer Garson always sounded like she’d spent the previous forty-eight hours breathing into a paper bag.”
“Who are you supposed to be?”
“As Bugs Bunny would say, ‘Who’m I makin’ like, Doc?’ Five aspects classical rhetoric. Take a guess, Daph. Take a guess which one I am. I’ll give you a clue: Pass on what’s behind the curtain, but definitely have a look at the box beside which Carol Merrill is now standing.”
“My name is not Pandora.”
“So what’s your name?”
“Don’t be smart.”
“I’m not smart.”
“Linus Steinbrenner thinks you are.”
“He thinks I’m an arbiter elegantiae.”
“What’s that, like a dumb waiter?”
“Did you know any of them?”
“Oh, Elijah!” the voice exclaimed. “Sweet little Elijah Jane! He never even knew I’m a Jew.”
“Because of your name?”
“Are you back to Pandora again?”
“I told you I need a name.”
“This Pandora charade is all Greek to me. Never learned me no Greek, being the ‘classic autodidact’ I got labeled, with no say in the matter. Picked up the title like chewing gum on the sole of my shoe.”
“Is that where the five aspects of classical rhetoric came from?”
“I have no idea what that means.”
“You just said it to me.”
“I was only repeating hearsay, the hot gossip.”
“So you haven’t been talking to Eugenie,” Daphne asked, “repeating that phrase to her?”
“She made that up,” the voice declared firmly, “along with everything else.”
“She gave me this phone.”
“So? Aren’t I allowed to pop up when and where I want given who I am?”
“Who are you?”
“Are you a writer?”
“It might be something of a sport for you to glean that information through your interviewer’s wiles.”
“Did you charm people?”
“Do I sound to you beautiful?”
“I don’t know what beautiful sounds like.”
“My life was my own revolution.”
“It was good then.”
“Really? You think so? Because, honestly, Daph, I wasn’t happy. Not happy at all.”
“Linus Steinbrenner told you he wasn’t happy.”
“I think he was happy at some parts of his life. But he’s sad thinking about other parts.”
“My life was my own revolution, Daphne, although in general life has no point.”
“No one wants to hear that.”
“But look at you trying to off yourself like life has no point.”
“So what should I have done instead?” Daphne argued. “What’s your advice?”
“Advice?” she mused. “Well, for starters, don’t bother keeping journals. What did I fill my voluminous notebooks with? Damn rank feelings! Bloody women’s feelings! I’d go back looking for the date in May of the previous year on which I told so-and-so I no longer loved him, and all I’d get is feelings, the cheapest commodity your mind can shoot to your pen!”
“I don’t keep journals.”
“But you take dictation for the guys.”
“They pay me.”
“Why is it you’ve fallen so hard for them?”
“Why wouldn’t I?”
“Oh, they have so much to say, don’t they?”
“As a matter of fact, they do.”
“None of them actually served in a uniform,” the voice declared, “did they? None with the bayonets to the gut, hand-to-hand combat, mano a mano, up close and personal. Why not ask Jan, ‘Daddy, what did you do during the war?’ What exactly was he doing when they hauled Anne Frank off to Bergen-Belsen? And Linus in his Bethesda bunker playing Chinese checkers.”
“He could’ve been killed getting out of Germany,” Daphne argued. “He knew Russian and German. That’s why they put him on a submarine near Iceland—to break codes.”
“And Elijah scuttling around Manhattan with his leftie writing and his great-tome-in-progress. Chin up with his astigmatisms, standing firm on his flat feet. Simon is the closest we’ve got to the man of the bunch, riding out the Blitz.”
“That’s unfair,” said Daphne. “Elijah later stood up to McCarthy. He’s not a coward.”
“He might’ve been a war correspondent. Liebling was a war correspondent long before he got so fat. And look at Eddie Petersham, killed on the front lines. Why didn’t Simon go with her? And how could Jan ignore those murderous years in escapist pursuit of his Trodermann?”
“He helped the Dutch resistance,” Daphne argued. “He lost Maja.”
“Do you know how she died?”
Daphne didn’t answer.
“You need to find out what is true,” said the voice, “what is true, for instance, about Linus Steinbrenner. Did you know that he refused ever to fly coach or tourist? Did you know that he was overheard at Dumbarton Oaks having a conversation with Britain’s chancellor of the exchequer about ‘the particular body odor of the Negro’? Did you know that he was never happy with his daughters, thought they lacked muchly in looks and social demeanor, were of limited intelligence? To his colleagues he referred to them as ‘Katherine’s girls.’ ”
“People change” was Daphne’s pallid defense.
“Or they can just get old and conveniently forget all the messes they’ve left behind.”
“Why are you telling me this?”
“And Elijah’s drivel about everyone ‘running off to Damarsicotta Mills.’ Such retrofitted enchantment! He did show up once at the Lowells’—little frog of a fellow.”
“He’s a turtle, not a frog.”
The voice burst into laughter. “All those drunken odds and ends! Margie Swain but also Elijah and Linus. You know about them, don’t you? Drinking buddies way after the fact. Think about that, Daphne, how these two men, believing the things that they did, could ever form a friendship. Talk about negative capability!”
“Linus knows he’s made mistakes.”
“And his worshiping Churchill of all people! The beast called Indians ‘a beastly people with a beastly religion.’ ”
“Humans are terrible.”
“All those unfortunate boozers,” the voice went on. “Poor old Margie. No one helped her, least of all Elijah. And does anybody know or care where Emily got laid to rest?”
“Life is one solid mass of irony, Daphne, no seams visible from here to eternity. Like Elijah and his pathological fixation, growing up in virtually the same place. The same goddamned place. All that fuss over a matter of miles on a filling-station map.”
“You must know that Bucky was accused of stealing the dome idea from a student.”
“I heard that.”
“Don’t you believe it?”
“My uncle didn’t.”
“That uncle of yours . . . he ever write books?”
“On rocks. He coauthored two and was working on a third—about a certain kind of quartz—when he died.”
“Was that his choice,” asked the voice, “to die?”
“He read poetry,” Daphne declared in defiance. “He read small books he could keep in his pocket. When I was young I would flatten out the wrappers of candy he bought me and then fold them into artistic shapes so he could use them as bookmarks. Sometimes he scribbled in a little notebook.”
“Love letters,” said the voice.
“Poems,” said Daphne.
“I don’t know if I should trust someone who secretly tapes people’s voices.”
“It was an accident,” said Daphne.
She waited for the reply, but there was none, nothing more. She looked down at the glowing phone. She put it to her ear another time before closing it and dropping it into her bag.
She realized she had crossed Charles as she listened and was now wandering in the dark, somewhere on Beacon Hill. Outside a hospital two years and three months ago, it was dark beyond the parking lot lights; there were no picturesque side streets. It had nonetheless been her intention to walk the two states home, even though what lie at the end was no longer home. She was prepared to walk in the dark for as long as it took.
What did it take to be the hero of your own life? Survival mostly. His mother was born in 1945 on the Alamogordo base in New Mexico, when his grandfather, the anti-Semitic physicist from Lucerne, was working on the Manhattan Project. His grandfather had a disease—people assumed it was polio—that caused him to walk with a severe limp. His Oakland-raised grandmother worked as a transcriber for the project and dabbled in astrology, was called an “occultist.” After the war, the family—his mother an only child—moved to Chicago, where his grandfather taught at the university.
His mother married a physicist herself and had two children. When he was twelve, his mother and sister visited relatives in Michigan. There was a freak gas leak and they both died in their sleep. He and his father were just beginning the sad journey of being alone when his dog died—hit by a car—two months later. When he was a sophomore in college, his father died; when he was a senior, his lifelong best friend died in a rock-climbing accident. His beloved mentor at MIT died quickly of stomach cancer. His second dog was killed by a car near Fresh Pond right before Daphne met him. He told her that the five people who died on him each had a different zodiac sign, so as far as he was concerned, those five signs were stricken from the gallery of constellations on the walls in his grandmother’s house. “You can never die on me, Daphne,” he told her over and over. “Scorpio has to stay up there until our star converts the last of its hydrogen to helium, until it burns away to nothing.”