When Daphne awoke, she picked up and set down the phone powered by a current from elsewhere. It glowed when she touched it and stopped when she let go. She called Andy and then Gwen on the real phone that wasn’t blue. She told Andy she wouldn’t be in the office; she was told by Gwen that a nurse had been called in, that Linus’s family was heading to Boston, that Simon had not regained consciousness.
She sat on the edge of her bed in the apartment where she lived alone—no people, no pets, no plants. A glass of water left since sometime, a shade that couldn’t be made straight no matter which side you pulled, a corner into which innocent items were enticed into a heap. How long had it been going on, living as if out of a suitcase? She’d been at this place over a year and most of her possessions were still in boxes, pyramids of them, just like her nomadic life with her mother. She did have a phone—what people now called a land line—but she had no Internet, which caused stupefaction in whomever she told, like saying she did her own dental work. She looked back at Simon’s phone and got ready.
Being that it was February, the cemetery was empty of SUVs tooling up and down the curving roads, as happens in spring as reliably as trees coming into leaf. Today as always there was the heavy scent of some coniferous tree or bush on Central Avenue, just before you got to the Adams stone. This beguiling scent originated in a thicket, on a slope where the springtime lilies of the valley were startlingly dense, squeezed leaf over leaf into the bleacher seats, eagerly awaiting the first pitch.
The phone in her bag started ringing. She was surprised it had taken this long. Her plan was to leave it within a hole in a tree. She needed to find the right one, however. Big old David Copperfield kind—a beech perhaps, silver or copper. There was a Norway maple almost ninety feet tall, and a sycamore maple reaching almost seventy. Whose forms did these invading trees take? Somewhere in here there had to be a tree for Anna Hahn Steinbrenner and a tree for Mary Baker Eddy and a tree for Bucky and Bundy and Fannie Farmer and Oliver Wendell Holmes. Maybe someone had already put a down payment on one for her.
She headed toward a black oak (Querus Velutina) on Yarrow Path. It had a bulge like it was pregnant with triplets. She called it Calista, goddess of fertility, after the name on a nearby headstone. She touched the tree and walked around it looking for an inverse deformation, a cavity. But there was no hole to be found. She stood back, at a distance, to behold the goddess, and suddenly the pregnant belly looked exactly like an old woman’s face. During many years of looking at this tree, she had never seen in the massive deformation a face, but here it was, large and angry, ravaged with deep, dark lines.
She set off toward Bellwort Path and Bucky’s grave, passing a rugged-looking groundskeeper in a Patriots jacket. He held several wooden stakes in his right hand—stakes with royal blue flags at the ends. He must have wondered why she wasn’t answering her phone, but this was a cemetery; one didn’t ask questions.
Quite often Fuller’s gravestone bore some idiosyncratic arrangement of found objects, discrete offerings from visitors whose intentions would remain forever obscure. Today it was a triangle of twigs, an arrangement she’d seen before. She’d had nightmares about this grave. She is having sex with an urgency that feels violent and her partner a distant stranger with no clue as to his humanity. It ends in the out of doors, with thunder and lightning and a torrential downpour. And then there’s a flash of recognition that the fucking is happening on Bucky and Anne, and Daphne and this force collapse into the earth atop the headstone—into a black hole with the weight of the stone, falling fast into the dark, way down to the decomposed corpses.
She placed Simon’s phone next to the triangle; no nickels today. But with the device ringing and ringing, crying out to the leafless trees, she suddenly changed her mind. She picked it up to answer the cry.
“That’s juniper you’ve been smelling,” the voice announced.
“Thank you,” said Daphne, heading toward Willow Pond.
“Some advice, Daphne: Don’t let men choose you. I never chose a man myself—idiotic, like a wrapped-up woman in Istanbul or Cairo—but never learned to recognize the broad-shouldered seducers who were landmines set to go off at a certain time and place. On the other end of the spectrum, though, keep an eye out for men who fall in love too quickly. They all do, of course, and fall out of it just as fast. But keep in mind that a man in love does not necessarily have anything interesting to say, and thus can be a drain on one’s affections.”
“Men don’t choose me,” said Daphne.
“Oh, and another thing,” the voice went on, “don’t waste years of health fretting the existence of God.”
“If there’s no God,” Daphne asked, “who or what is making you happen?”
She laughed. “The universe will have its way, Daphne. God will not be mocked.”
“I don’t understand you.”
“Look at Victor Slocum’s second heart—his second life, his second chance. Isn’t that mocking ourselves, mocking our God?”
“Anybody would want a second heart,” Daphne argued. “A second chance. For all the parts to be put back in working order. I don’t begrudge Victor Slocum.”
“But you did begrudge Victor Slocum.”
“I was thinking of the dead.”
The voice laughed. “How sweet of you!”
“Where are you?” asked Daphne.
“I don’t like this place, Daphne. To be honest, it scares me. Don’t go getting any high, wide, and handsome thoughts about the afterlife. It’s pregnant with catastrophe.”
“Do you have to stay there?”
Now the voice laughed with gusto. “Get me a visa, Daph! Pull some strings. Get me that thirty-day passport stamp, a weekend nod through Checkpoint Charlie, overnight shore leave. I promise I’ll come back this time without a sailor. I’ll be a good girl this time.”
“I can’t help you,” Daphne said in frustration.
The line was silent.
“I have too many living people to worry about,” she continued. “I can’t start worrying about people who aren’t.”
“Four barely living people are hardly a lot.”
“They are a lot to me,” said Daphne.
After she’d closed the device, she imagined the voice on the other end to have bent down to place her own phone on a narrow and long wooden dock. And then, barefoot, she walked to the very end of that long dock. She dove off and swam into the horizon. It was always warm and always summer at the other end; it was always just before dark.
Willow Pond was eerily still in its winter incarnation but a body of water just the same. She was surprised that whoever ran things here hadn’t decided to drain the pond, but there was probably an ecosystem to consider. With all her brute strength, with all her Beast in the Jungle determination, she pulled back her arm and flung Simon’s phone high into the air. It was all in the flex of the back muscle, not pulling but releasing, for the force was already present and accounted for in the archer’s stance. She watched the odd piece of technology twirl slowly in the arc of its descent. On impact it smacked a slim glazing of ice, leaving a small bit of turbulence in its wake.
“I could fine you five hundred bucks for that.”
She turned to see the man in the Patriots jacket still holding the stakes, standing on the road above. “I forgot to put that in the coffin with her,” she yelled up at the man, who nodded and walked away.
Farther away on the same road she saw a stopped car, an older sedan. The passenger side was parked away from her field of vision, but when that door opened, a hand emerged—a Tales from the Crypt hand, fingers splayed—to clamp down onto the vehicle’s hood. She didn’t wait to see what kind of creature followed.
“We’ve come to collect you,” said Jan as she reached the car. “Round you up!”
“How on earth did you know I was here?” she asked.
“Elijah needs company at the hospital,” he said, looking back inside the car, where he obviously intended to be. “I have to attend a memorial lecture at which I shall be feted like I was already memorial myself.”
“How is Simon?” she asked, looking inside to see Martha Downey behind the wheel.
“Same dour picture I’m afraid.”
“Did you know he’d been fighting with Winkill when I went to Eugenie’s yesterday?” she asked, moving to facilitate his reentry.
“Yes, yes, I was told,” he said, gripping the open door with both hands as he turned to fall back inside. “We shall speak no more of that monster.”
“So you’ve been to Mass. General?” she asked, getting into the backseat.
“Dr. Kindermans was up and out of the house by eight,” said Martha.
“Took a taxi there,” he said, “and was given a LIFT back to Cambridge by some foolish fellow who works at MIT.”
“So I have been conscripted,” said Martha with apprehension.
“Yes!” came his enthusiastic reply. “Conscripted! Face down your fears, Martha! You can rise to the occasion! You can do it!”
Martha’s bleak expression gave evidence of her predicament. “I haven’t driven in Boston since 1993,” she confessed.
“I can drive,” Daphne offered, sliding to the center of the seat and leaning toward the front, as children used to do.
“No,” she said. “Since my late husband, I am the sole person authorized to operate this car. My insurance company wouldn’t allow for that—or my husband if he were here. This was his pride and joy, this car.”
As Martha slowly made their way out of Mount Auburn, Daphne asked, “So what kind of car is this?”
“Buick Skylark,” said Martha.
Jan made a noise of recognition and then did something very surprising—to Daphne at least. He sang. “Sky—lark, have you anything to say to me.” He paused. “Words by Johnny Mercer, tune by Hoagy Carmichael.”
“My uncle told me,” said Daphne, “that the reason the male skylark can sing for several minutes at a time so high in the sky is that the females look for that ability when choosing a mate.”
“You know birds, do you?”
“Not really. Just what I’m told.”
“In the song,” he said, “the singer asks advice from a bird!”
“That’s so human,” said Daphne. “Thinking the bird would have any interest in us.”
“What about our lady?” asked Jan. “Has she anything to say to you?”
Daphne felt embarrassed that Martha had to hear this. “Nothing,” she told him. “And I don’t like that phrasing our lady—it sounds religious.”
“And you, of course, are not!”
For the duration of the ride, Jan offered continuous commentary on Martha’s numerous wrong turns and missed exits. It was already 3:30 by the time the Skylark pulled into the massive MGH compound.
“Will you be OK driving home?” Daphne asked.
“We have a brilliant plan!” Jan shouted.
Martha nodded. “I’m going to park in the garage here and then meet my sister Vera and her husband at the Harvard Gardens across the street at four o’clock. We’ll have dinner, and then I’ll follow Walter back to Cambridge.”
“Ingenious!” bellowed Jan.
As they made their way toward the ICU, Daphne could see that Jan was someone who rose to the occasion of a crisis—that his way of dealing with worry was to keep active, keep moving, keep talking.
They found Elijah sitting alone like a turtle on a rock. His rock was situated across some rows of seats from where Susan Frost and her daughters, Tessa and Abigail, and their husbands waited. Tessa looked just like her sister—tall enough but more so big-boned, with shoulders and arms of a perfect spherical line. Daphne had no idea where the Frost children came from—not their towering but lithe and handsome father and especially not their diminutive mother. One of the husbands had bad posture and held the magazine he was reading—The Economist—close enough to his bearded face to give the normal reader a headache. The other was almost too ordinary to warrant description.
Jan claimed the seat on one side of the turtle and Daphne the other, moving the valise to the floor.
Elijah gripped and held Daphne’s hands in each of his. “I’m afraid it’s time to disband,” he said, looking at her and Jan. “Like the James Gang.”
“Nonsense!” scoffed Jan.
“They’ve got Jesse,” said Elijah sadly.
“Then we’ll devise a plan to help him escape!” cried Jan.
“He may do that in his own way,” said Daphne.
Elijah let go of her hands and then removed the large circles of his glasses to rub his eyes. Jan looked at her in that familiar way—on the verge of consternation but not quite getting there. He looked down at his large hands resting over the coat on his lap. “Things don’t look good for Linus,” he said. “I spoke with Judith. His other daughter is on her way from Spain.”
“I’ll be next,” said Elijah with a nod.
“Nonsense!” Jan said again. “If anyone’s going it’s me. Long overdue.”
Daphne couldn’t think of any words to make either man feel better. “Let’s hope it’s peaceful for Simon,” she finally said. It had not been peaceful yesterday at Eugenie’s.
“I don’t know if any end is peaceful,” said Elijah. “As Larkin wrote, death is no different whined at than withstood.”
“But he wrote that without himself having first died,” said Jan with a sour face.
“Most things may never happen: This one will.”
“Has anyone heard anything from Eugenie?” asked Daphne.
“I don’t doubt she has the ability to disappear,” said Jan.
“I haven’t spoken with her since Monday,” said Elijah, “when we all were together.”
“So why was Simon there with her alone?” she asked.
Just then three young people reverently entered the ICU waiting room—two men and a woman—and scanned the tense faces before recognizing Jan. They waved but remained where they stood.
“Behold!” shouted Jan. “My students have come to fetch me!”
“Here’s your hat, what’s your hurry?” said Elijah.
“Are you OK going off again like this?” asked Daphne. “You’ve been going all day. You should rest.”
“Going all day will see to it that I rest tonight,” he said, getting up. And then he added somberly, “Unless I hear otherwise.” He placed his large hand on Elijah’s small bony shoulder before walking over to Susan Frost and her daughters. He leaned down to kiss each of them and then vigorously shook hands with the now standing husbands. He next walked over to shake and hold the hand of a woman sitting between two teenage boys—people from another crisis. Daphne now felt small-minded for having lost sight of Jan’s vocation. This was the first time she’d seen him in the life of his making—the man of God, the man of the word, compassionate toward the suffering of strangers, a pillar of strength during times of fear. He shortly left with his three disciples.
“Shall we take temporary leave,” proposed Elijah, “from the intensity of his place?”
Daphne carried his absurdly heavy valise and he shuffled at her side outside the ICU waiting room, into the noise and hallway commotions of a life-and-death hospital. They settled on some upholstered chairs near a window, where a heavyset woman in a wheelchair had been deposited and fallen asleep. If it wasn’t for the woman’s periodic snoring, Daphne might think she were dead.
“I never thought I would live this long,” Elijah told her after she had settled him into the chair and surrounded him with his drop-box raincoat and beret and the all-important valise. “I never wanted to, still don’t. It’s not something I asked for.”
“Everyone wants a long life when they go to a fortuneteller,” said Daphne. “A long line with no breaks.”
“I should have gone at fifty-five,” he said, his eyes vacant—or rather, blankly staring into the middle distance. “I remember thinking then that if a doctor told me I had six months to live, I would be relieved.”
“But would you really have been ready?”
“What people mean by ‘ready’ is having made provisions for loved ones who survive them. I never had to worry about that.”
“Because of Pandora?”
He continued his middle-distance stare, blinking a few times with those lash-less lids. Then he looked down. “I have a confession to make.”
She knew he had a confession to make—all along she knew he had a confession. She didn’t think it would be to her that he would make it, however.
“I gave her the name Pandora because I never knew her.”
She gave him the benefit of her silence. “If strangers have a name,” she finally said, “they aren’t strangers.”
“She was a woman I saw daily at the New York Public Library in 1944 and into the next year. In Room 304, the main reading room. On many days she was the only woman there in the entire room. It was a man’s place. But that wasn’t why I stared—because she was the only woman. To call her lovely is a slight to my memory. Light brown hair that caught the light, green eyes of a beguiling hue—sometimes emerald, sometimes gray. She reminded me of a hummingbird. She would buzz in at two-thirty and alight on her one preferred flower and there remain, although agitated. She would look up from her books as if seeing the world anew, each time. She had such an intelligent way of looking. Oftentimes she’d appear startled that other human beings were going about their business all around her. I don’t think she ever once noticed me staring. I was invisible to her, and yet it did not bother me that I was invisible to her.
“With some women at the time, they would refuse to see you if you were my age and in civilian clothes. If they caught you staring, they might shout, ‘Why aren’t you in uniform?’ But I could tell this was not the case in my being invisible to Pandora. In fact, it gave me a privileged vantage point, the omniscient narrator. I was determined to find out everything about her. One day I would ask, surely. One day I would speak to her. But something held me back, sought to prolong the mystery. I was not shy with women, so it was not shyness. I felt that the longer I maintained my privileged vantage point, the more I might learn about human nature.
“And then one day she wasn’t there—and another day and another. I told myself she had gone to visit an aunt in the Midwest—that was the innocent story, although I knew it could be that she had married and was carried away by the man who’d won her. It was right after V-E Day—a wounded soldier may have been sent home to her. Still, that didn’t seem right either, because of the way she’d been so immersed in her work, with such passion, day after day. She was nowhere near completion of her project; I could tell that. And even if she had a man, he’d probably still have been abroad. So I hoped for her return.
“And then a week or so after her disappearance from my life, I was sitting at a lunch counter and just by chance picked up a scruffy, days-old newspaper I never read. I turned a section and there was her face, unmistakable. It was her smiling face—that face of so much wonder. I knew it so well it gave me a start to see it in a context beyond myself. ‘Woman found dead in 86th Street apt.’ I put the paper down before it burned my hands. I didn’t even read the name.”
Daphne felt that she already knew the story from somewhere; this sense of knowing was disorienting.
“I had constructed this tower of Eros,” he continued, looking straight ahead, “so real it was to me. With shame I mourned, but the mourning was the most powerful feeling of my life. The heaving in my stomach was brutal enough. I understood the violence with which Lear cried out, the relinquishment of the self. How could a fictionalized love have such power?
“Madness—psychosis—can always be justified. Chesterton, for instance: ‘The whole difference between construction and creation is exactly this: that a thing constructed can only be loved after it is constructed; but a thing created is loved before it exists.’ ”
Daphne felt sad—sad without prejudice. “Why did you tell them she was real?”
“Because she was real,” he said, pausing. “She just wasn’t mine.”
“They’ve gone on thinking she was lost at twenty-five, like theirs were lost at twenty-five.”
He sighed deeply. “I didn’t tell them anything, Daphne. In Montreux that day, it was all feeling. How could I say I was weeping over the death of woman I never even knew? I doubt I said anything concrete one way or another.”
She couldn’t process this. “Then what do you believe about death and the afterlife?”
“I desired to believe, Daphne. You have to understand that.” Now he looked at her, beseechingly and tired. “My willingness for the Quartet and this antic when I knew my great love was entirely fictional? Perhaps what it shows is my belief that imagination makes existence possible.”
She shook her head. “Even when it’s not the truth?”
“My book on Larkin was in production when the man died, was ready to be put on a web press. I had titled it No Elsewhere Underwrites My Existence, after his words. For some reason, though, I struck the No from the title. My publisher was furious; they took it out my royalties, the late-stage printing costs. Some people understood why I did this; others didn’t. Practically nothing divides the real and the imagined, whereas so much comes between people.”
She sat with him—for a minute, for two minutes, and then it became five. She blotted her eyes with the lining of her coat as a hospital worker arrived to wheel away the snoring woman. Elijah, too, had fallen asleep—like any one of the apostles at Gethsemane, or Linus Steinbrenner in his armchair throne. Taking up the bulk of his open valise was four or five inches of manuscript. She was surprised he could even lift so much paper. She looked up from this thought to see Mistress Eugenie standing before her, in living color with her forehead dot and her interconnected saris and today an olive-green parka on top of everything.
“You let Winkill do that to Simon,” Daphne told her. “You’re criminal.”
The mistress made a face like a butcher rationalizing the price of pastrami. “Simon—he wanted meeting.”
She shrugged. “Maybe he knew it was time for that.”
“So you fed him mussels as a last meal?”
The mistress frowned. “He was Eugenie’s guest.”
“Winkill is a horrible person.”
She shrugged again. “Simon gets what he wants.”
“And is that what Winkill wanted?”
The mistress reached within her saris to produce Daphne’s recorder. “Take it and don’t leave at my place again.”
Daphne took the recorder. “You know there’s no Pandora.”
She smiled. “The name is not true, but the lady is there.”
“Then you should tell Elijah.”
The mistress made a grand gesture of rolling her eyes and knocking on her skull as if it were a coconut. “Don’t you know nothing? Elijah does not want to know.”
Daphne shook her head. “I’m tired of this game. All it can do is kill them.”
“I have for you two things,” said Eugenie with a frown. “This”—here she pulled from her saris a page that had been torn from a book—“for you to read later. And now police tip.”
“You have to watch out for Va-Va-Voom, okey-doke? And Monkeyman too, like I told you.”
“And now what?”
“Now,” said Eugenie, pulling the hood with its strip of mangy fur over her head, “you are mistress for Quartet.” She turned and walked away in her sturdy stride, down the long corridor until she disappeared.