Early Friday morning Daphne was awakened by the phone. It was Gwen calling in the dark, telling her that Linus had been admitted to Mount Auburn Hospital. Daphne arrived at the hospital to find the waiting area anchored by two middle-aged women and some younger people with babies. The middle-aged women were hugging, sloppy luggage having fallen in a heap on the floor beside one of them. Gwen sat reading a book, and Jan sat talking to another man, old but not quite as old as the Quartet.
“Are you Daphne?” asked one of the huggers, whose short gray hair was cut with a precision that made you stare. “I’m Judith Steinbrenner. This is my sister, Miranda.”
Daphne shook Judith’s hand and that of her sister, whose wiry hair was gray only a half-inch in each direction at the part—the rest was bright red.
“Thanks for spending so much time with Dad,” said Judith. “He’s fond of you.”
Daphne left the Steinbrenners to their children and walked over to Gwen, whose book—a historical novel by the look of the cover—she held a noticeable distance as she read, making a face at whatever was happening in print. “Do you know how Elijah is doing?” Daphne asked.
“ ‘Sick with grief,’ ” Gwen replied. “That’s the word from that Ellen he lives with.”
Daphne left Gwen to her book and sat a row and some seats away. When Jan noticed her sitting silently he threw up his hands. “How long have you been there?”
“Please don’t get up,” she told him, but it was no use. He was using the shoulder of the man he’d been talking to as a springboard.
She was surprised to be hugged—and by a man so obviously not prone to hugging. He slapped her on the back as if she’d been choking.
“This mortal coil!” he exclaimed upon releasing her. “Here, there, and everywhere!”
“You mean the chance of war?”
“I thought sentiment would turn against this,” he said with a confounded expression.
“They’re all lying,” she replied.
“The facts are available,” he protested. “There for the taking!”
“People don’t search out the truth.”
He motioned for her to sit and then turned to stare at her. “You’re much too satisfied sitting places alone.”
She didn’t know what to say to that. “There’s a Neil Young song that goes I need a crowd of people, but I can’t face them day to day.”
“You fancy yourself a rock star, do you?”
This made her smile.
He stared at her for a very long moment. “Why the devil did you want to kill yourself?” he whispered, though she was certain others could hear.
“I don’t know,” she said. “Because it was easy?”
“It can’t have been that easy or I wouldn’t be talking to you.”
“My shrink told me that Britain’s suicide rate dropped by something like a third when the country went from fueling stoves with coal gas—which can kill you in minutes—to natural gas, which has little carbon monoxide. If only Sylvia Plath had waited to the seventies.”
“Gerhard Trodermann—he was an archivist of Bach’s works—had found God spontaneously and with much jubilation but subsequently took his life while despairing of the death of his beloved niece—from TB naturally.”
She nodded, as if she had firsthand knowledge of the disease.
He shook his head. “No one wants to die. They just want their pain, whatever the kind, to stop.”
“I don’t think it was pain with me,” she confessed. “It was more feeling powerless against the universe having its way.”
He wasn’t pleased. “Didn’t your psychiatrist help you?”
“He wasn’t a psychiatrist, and he’s not what helped me. It was other things.”
“What other things?”
“I don’t know—eating sardines and carrots maybe.”
“You need God, Daphne.”
She smiled. He cast his gaze about the room. “Look at Gwen over there with her face in a book.”
Gwen’s face, as she’d already noticed, was nowhere near the book.
“Maja’s brother,” he said before grunting.
“They said he always had his face in a book.”
“The Poles I talked to in Warsaw.”
“I thought he was Norwegian.”
“Trygve had been doing research—something about postwar economies, rifling though papers at the Warsaw Stock Exchange. Nonsensical just like his sister, wouldn’t leave where he was. Determined to fight the Reich in his own way. He was conscripted by a group trying to find overnight places for babies—the few smuggled out of the ghetto. Someone told me he had moved one child to a different place every night for an entire month. And then the child died of pneumonia, and he quit the babies. So much for fighting the Reich!”
“What happened to him?”
“They rounded him up once. Rather than shoot they took his glasses, so he had to hold his books close to his face. I don’t trust all the Poles told me, but it seems the Gestapo did target practice at starving dogs that managed to escape from the ghetto. All starving dogs were ‘Jew dogs.’ One Jew dog they kept missing. So they did their target practice on the next best thing—Trygve with his face in a book.”
They both stared at Gwen reading her novel. Somehow this shared pursuit made Daphne feel very close to him. “When did it start, your wanting to contact Maja?”
Beneath the thick, white furrow of his brow he appeared lost to concentration. “Alice James thought the family home haunted by ‘ghost microbes.’ ” He paused. “Since I came to America, I’ve always felt haunted, like something was after me.”
“Maybe it’s the Hound of Heaven,” she said with a smile, “chasing you down the arches of the years.”
He rubbed the side of his head brutally, as if the friction might prove the equivalent of electroshock therapy. “No arches left!”
Here Ellen Ludenberry’s singsongy entrance stole the room’s attention. She set down her large leather bag and proceeded to hug and pat each Steinbrenner progeny but not Gwen. When she noticed Jan she made a sad face that made Daphne want to slap it. Being a theologian and not a moral equivocator, Jan hugged both Ellen and her husband, Conrad, but didn’t slap either on the back as he had Daphne. For a moment, she felt special.
Conrad Ludenberry the Einstein biographer seemed a kind and gentle man, not at all a social climber—which Daphne found reassuring since he was the son of Elijah’s sister Maisie. He’d had a hard childhood and was completely self-made; Daphne suspected that Elijah was proud of him but wouldn’t admit it. Conrad told Jan and Daphne that Simon had been given last rites by a priest from the Church of the Advent—which Jan already knew—and that Elijah remained stoic in his favored green chair with a manuscript on his lap.
Soon others arrived, and Jan was swept up in the swirl of intelligentsia while Daphne read Ivan Ilyich. She could tell that the morning and afternoon of talking weighed heavily on Jan’s shoulders. “Daphne, I need a quiet place to pray,” he told her just before three.
He had initially insisted on walking home, but the Ludenberrys and everyone else managed to convince him to let them drive him. When he’d disappeared down the corridor, Daphne returned to her previous sadness. Gwen had gone to lunch with the Steinbrenner grandchildren and their babies. After an hour more of Tolstoy and the Times, Daphne’s reading was interrupted by a hand proffering a small wrapped piece of candy bearing a picture of Mozart.
“Mind if we talk?” It was Linus’s daughter Miranda, the one who lived in Seville with an elderly boyfriend who did something Daphne couldn’t remember. Naturally he became a barber who sang outside windows.
“They told me you’ve been taking notes for their club,” she said when she sat.
Daphne felt she ought to reassure Linus’s daughter. “Oh, they mostly get together for companionship.”
“I know all about that crazy medium they’ve been seeing.”
Well, there goes diplomacy, she thought. “She’s bad news.”
“Jude and I are having a tough time processing all this. I wish Gwen told us about it when it started.”
“She probably thought it was harmless.”
“Gwen believes in that afterlife-connection stuff.”
Daphne nodded even though she didn’t think it was the afterlife-connection stuff that Gwen believed in.
Miranda shook her head. “Dad’s a very spiritual person, but this ‘spirits’ stuff I just can’t buy. That’s not Dad at all. He has a scholar’s relationship to God. And he’s been sharp as a tack all these years. I hate to see his life end on this note.”
“Maybe we can change the note before his life ends.”
Miranda smiled. “I hope you get a chance to talk to him before he goes. I’ve been saying my fifty years of good-byes since I got here.”
“How does it feel,” asked Daphne, “to have such an accomplished father?”
She thought on this. “There’s probably forty years’ worth of historians and journalists who’ve felt uniquely qualified to float a theory about him.”
“That’s because he’s admitted to mistakes,” said Daphne. “People don’t know what to do with honesty.”
“They say his Methodist mother was cold—and that’s kind of true because she was a real bitch—that he was solitary and melancholy as a boy. Because he was sick for so long—they say that made him lonely.”
“Was he lonely as an adult?”
“I don’t know. There was one guy just slamming him for abiding by principles of ‘prudence, self-restraint, duty, and discipline’—as if this was a bad thing. The Left hated him because he always thought the Russians were a threat, and the Right because he didn’t see them as an evil empire. He had respect for the peculiarities of other countries.”
“That’s pretty rare.”
“He liked to quote what John Quincy Adams said about Americans—that they don’t go abroad in search of monsters to destroy.”
Daphne nodded emphatically. “He loves to quote.”
Just then Miranda was called from the waiting area by her sister. This is it, thought Daphne. She saw Gwen making a tearful exit a ways down the corridor and realized she was the only non-kin still there. Even most of the grandchildren had gone. She tried going back to Ivan Ilyich, but now it seemed “just a book”—what people would say to pooh-pooh childish fears. It’s just a book, Daphne.
Poking out from the top of this book was the paper that Eugenie had handed her the night before—a page torn from a book. She pulled it out. The running head said The Blithedale Romance, which meant Nathaniel Hawthorne. Someone had circled a passage with a purple crayon: People never do get just the good they seek. If it come at all, it is something else, which they never dreamed of, and did not particularly want.
Within twenty minutes Judith appeared before Daphne. “Dad wants to see you,” she whispered. “Don’t worry. We’ve all said our peace.” It was 9:30 by the clock on the wall and 9:01 by the watch on Daphne’s wrist.
The dark room, the lamps with targeted illumination—the bed, the white sheets pulled too tight, the small miscellany about the institutional trays and shelves. He looked like something brittle in a museum case; she didn’t dare touch him. “Linus, are you there?”
“Miranda,” he said. It was barely a voice.
“I’m not Miranda. It’s Daphne.”
“Miranda date of birth April 19, 1948,” his hoarse voice declared.
“I met them,” she said. “They’re lovely women.”
His eyes were closed. “Judith DOB November 24, ’49.”
“With lovely children.”
In the silence she touched his hand, which felt lifeless and cold.
“Anna asked me . . . ”
“What did she ask?”
“If she were dying.”
She held her breath.
“I tried to make her smile,” he went on.
“Always good to laugh.”
“I reminded her of what Blake said.”
“—consciousness destroys the act.”
“Did she smile?”
She waited some more.
“Tell me a memory,” he said.
Her memories always seemed to put him and the rest of the Quartet to sleep. Maybe now he wanted a fatal dose. “Once upon a time I saw a white owl in the Blue Hills.”
His eyes remained closed. “Did he look you in the eye?”
“I think it was a she. I could tell from the way she looked me in the eye.”
He let his jaw drop open. After some minutes of barely breathing in this position, there was a tremor in his jaw. He neither moved nor opened his eyes. He tilted his head to one side and then the other. More and more silence. And more.
The nurse moved in and did things around where Daphne had awkwardly moved a chair. She didn’t feel the tears until she felt Linus’s sobbing daughters standing behind her. She wasn’t sure if he had died or was about to or was in the process of—with all its strange sounds from the throat—she just receded from the scene.
Judith’s husband had come back from somewhere holding his phone. He looked to Daphne with the expected facial query. She nodded.
“Simon too,” he said, “9:35.”
She walked past open doors and half-open doors and doors that should have remained closed. Old people were sitting in wheelchairs inside these rooms, waiting. Yet I loved to love the love’s to love the love’s to love the love’s to love. That’s what her mind said as she wiped her eyes leftward and rightward. Cumulonimbus incus, altocumulus undulatus, cirrostratus translucidus fibratus.
At the elevators she recognized one very recognizable nurse—the Welsh Pavarotti who’d called her last fall, when Linus came here and made it out alive.
“So many kinds of death” was her explanation for the tears and macerated tissue.
“And none of them good.”
There was something very wrong about crying at a ninety-three-year-old’s demise—doing so in front of a nurse seemed worse by a few degrees. “Someone probably has a chart saying how much you’re justified to cry.”
He shrugged. “I’m a nurse, not a bookie.”
“With old people like Linus,” she said, “you watch as life just trails off, like the ending of ‘Knocking on Heaven’s Door.’ You don’t expect that sudden fade-out. There ought to be something more.”
He nodded. “More lyrics, less cowbell.”
She shook her head. “That could almost make me laugh.”
“That’s why I was put on earth,” he said. “That and the administration of suppositories.”
She blew her nose.
“I used to do stand-up at places like the Ding Ho,” he told her. “Way before your time.”
“Nothing was ever before my time.”
“Ever hear of the Ding?”
She shook her head.
“Home of Constant Comedy. They used to wedge me in between Steven Wright and Paula Poundstone, as a palate cleanser.” He paused. “You’re probably wondering how I got into this profession,” he continued, eyeing her warily. “There’s an old Nichols and May routine.”
She blew her nose again and nodded. “My son—the nurse.”
He widened his eyes as if he’d forgotten something. “Daphne, right?”
She nodded again.
“Just come with me just through those doors and down to the nurses’ station. Won’t take two minutes.”
She followed the back of his clogs through the doors and to the nurses’ station, where he opened a few drawers behind the counter before retrieving a sadly familiar device. “He told me to give you his secret weapon.”
There was a yellow Post-It Note attached—“For Daphne.”
“Fuck these phones,” she said to the phone.
He lifted his arms to say What can ya do?
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I’m not mad at you.”
“How could you be? It’s a phone, not Bisacodyl.”
She looked down at this object that started to glow. “What does he think I’m going to do with it?”
He, too, looked into the glow. “Take down NASA maybe? Clear up that Roswell mess?”
When she smiled, he told her, “Be like Yoshimi, Daphne. Fight those robots.”