Daphne was again awakened by a ringing phone—her first groggy thought being that Elijah had gone, maybe Elijah and Jan both. Then she realized it was Linus’s phone that you couldn’t turn off. Her tears from the night before made her eyes feel swollen shut. She ignored the ringing as she showered and dressed and shut the door behind her. “Answer the goddamned phone!” someone shouted down the stairway when she reached bottom.
She got in the Cadillac and drove to the cemetery, the phone wailing all the way. She parked where nobody was—which was easy to do this time of year—and started walking. When she pulled the ringing phone out of her bag, something weightlessly drifted to the ground. She stopped to pick up a sealed envelope—the letter with “Dowling” above the return address. She stared at the envelope and then opened the phone.
“New York City—I just had to be there,” said the voice, “like some Balzac provincial yearning for La Ville Lumière.”
“I’m already having a bad day,” said Daphne.
“And it wasn’t for the shop windows and that beautiful skin that women took injections to make happen. No, I was always drawn to drifters, to confidence men, lunch-counter waitresses, dime-store clerks—anyone you’d happen by on the Penn Station concourse at two in the morning. Bartenders and cabdrivers, widows and nurses’ aides.”
“Linus and Simon are dead,” said Daphne.
“Oh, that time held so much promise—everything seemed possible still, even the utopian hash-outs we’d have, squeezed into a booth at the first glimmer of dawn. To change the world on a small scale; that’s what all of us were after. Everyone I respected was trying to live in a principled way, our ambitions fueled by the energy peace brought.”
“The Marshall Plan years. That was a good time really. I suppose that’s one useful thing Linus helped along. And then the Russians got hold of the atomic bomb—just like the boy across the street could suddenly be seen circling his driveway with the same red Schwinn. Horrors! And next came the H-bomb, not that anyone understood the subtle differences between these two distinct forms of mass annihilation.”
“Those were supposed to be happy days,” said Daphne.
“I got nowhere with politics or with love. And then of course there was the love-politics of being a woman in those years. For women, the thing is—you stop looking at what other people have. And yet . . .
“And yet I get so sick and tired of women writers. In the old world their tendency was to concoct tales with such absurd lengths of drapery, the devil in the details. And in the new world the drapery of custom and conduct was bartered for relationships with mothers. Chekhov could write about a woman’s relationships with mothers and fathers and uncles with great economy—it didn’t go on for four god-awful generations in the same Kentucky town.”
“You would never make it in today’s academia.”
“I had a real stream of words once with Marguerite Duras over some crap of a manuscript I was given to read. I told her, ‘Maybe other folks are happy to spend two hundred pages at the heels of your heroine wondering whether a certain married man would be able to give her a decent orgasm, but I’ve got better things to do before lunch.’ Not that I have anything against Frenchwomen. I was a young and avid reader of George Sand.”
“Tell me who you are,” demanded Daphne.
“I am someone who longed to write novels where the worm turns and is triumphant. But unfortunately I was clever—and because of that I had an awful compulsion to make virtuoso literary references, as a sort of secret signal, a smug looking over the heads of the readers who don’t understand. Clever women had it hard, for you had to be clever to be seen at all, but this factor stood in your way.
“I mean, who really cares how well my character can expound on Kant’s categorical imperative? All they want to know is: Will he take the bullet at the end?”
“Who takes the bullet at the end?”
“I was trying to push my best writing at a time of fads. Salinger and that calculated sort of metropolitan sentimentality—self-indulgent and wearying. And then all those books about ‘the quest for the self.’ Everyone loves to read books about the strapping boy striking out for the territories, but when you’re older, how on earth do you write them?
“When you’re older, Daphne, it seems that you must make the self. It’s futile to look for it because you won’t find it. But you do learn from your history of getting some things and not others that in some sense it’s possible to make it, the self.”
“I need to make a self,” said Daphne.
“Frothingham is about the failure to make the self, to be Zachariah Frothingham. In fact, all the characters in different ways represent doubt, philosophical or ontological.”
“People argue so much about that book,” said Daphne.
“The one thing Margie knew for certain was that the hero had to die at the end, but our Zack was quite the comic figure actually—whereas no one thinks of Gatsby with his closets of shirts as being the least bit of a goof. It seems to me that all comic characters are immortal. Think of the Micawbers. They must go on forever and ever, impervious to the brakes of self-reflection and doubt. In fact, it’s everyone in Dickens has this quality—Wegg, Skimpole, Pecksniff, Miss Mowcher. Everyone but the heroes, those bloody sad-sacks.”
“Zack couldn’t be comic if he was the hero.”
“The book’s presentation of the market for worldly success was vastly different from the rules Dickens laid out. It would have to be a woman navigating the ship. A man could never get outside Zack’s ego.”
“And yet the novel is mostly about men,” argued Daphne. “There’s no woman I could find who gave shape to the narrative. That’s one of the reasons I didn’t want to write about it.”
“Any story that appears to be about men is really about the absence of women.”
Daphne laughed. “Then the history of the world is about the absence of women.”
The voice fell silent long enough for Daphne to ask “Hello?”
“Did you know Elijah wanted to be a poet? Poor little thing had no talent for verse. He could never quite grasp Frost’s rule of the trade, that ‘like a piece of ice on a hot stove the poem must ride on its own melting.’ ”
“I didn’t know he wrote poems.”
“Our biggest, longest argument was over his compulsion to rate writers—contemporary writers. As if ‘contemporary writers’ were the boys shown up for the parking-lot kickball tournament. Count out heads in tens—twenty, thirty, forty, fifty, five, six, seven. Fifty-seven boys in all, and now we shall rank them. Oh, and maybe one girl or two once the rankings were done and a sharp fall-off in recognizable talent could be detected between, say, 22 and 23. Wedge in a female to stem the bleeding. I’d say to him, ‘There are writers the world over who are the best and yet no one knows of their work. The cream may rise to the top, but no one opens the bottle.’ ”
“Did you rise to the top?”
“You mean heaven?”
“Is there a heaven?”
The voice laughed. “This place is like a goddamned Vienna youth hostel—everyone sweating their foreign sweat.”
“I want to think you’re that woman in the library,” said Daphne. “The writer in Room 304, the woman Elijah never met. But she died in 1945. It doesn’t make sense.”
“A bad relationship is like a house that has burned to the ground. You can walk over and over the ashes, but you’ll never know what started the fire.”
Daphne shook her head. “There are experts who can tell how fires start, forensic scientists.”
“I’m afraid I died before forensics.”
“Tell me who you are.”
There was no sound from the phone, no more voice. It was just as well since Daphne had arrived at the pond. The surface appeared more substantial than it had two days ago—perhaps impenetrable. She looked down at the phone one last time. She took a deep breath, reached her arm back, and flung Linus’s phone toward what should have been its watery grave. On impact with the ice it bounced without shattering—one, two, three times. It did not go gently, was in fact still glowing blue.
She sat on a cold bench to watch the immobile phone glowing on the ice. Eventually she felt the envelope she’d stuck in her pocket. She ripped the seal and pulled out a sheet of ruled paper—the three-hole grade-school kind—folded in thirds. She unfolded a handwritten letter that began “Dear Daphne.” Her eyes skipped down to read the signature: Ed Dowling, preceded by a “Fondly.” She had not even remembered that his name was Ed.
Ed Dowling’s letter said he was going to be in Cambridge on February 27—at a seminar at Harvard—and would like to meet with her. He said that Paul had mentioned where she worked, and that he hoped he wasn’t being forward by searching out that address and writing to her there. He said he’d been thinking of her family a lot lately and wished to see how she turned out, she being his goddaughter. He said this would mean a lot to him being that he had no children himself—would love to have had a daughter he could watch grow up. Here she stopped reading. She looked up again to see that the phone in the middle of the pond had disappeared.
She drove back to her apartment somberly, feeling something missing from inside the very wide car—larger than a phone but smaller than a person, like she’d gone to put a sick animal to sleep. It was blue-sky sunny, however, a happy-looking day. She remembered a song that went Everything is good these days, but all of my friends are dying.
On the steps to her apartment building she encountered a man who seemed to know who she was, had been waiting for her. Middle-aged and overweight, he reminded her of the mayor of Boston because he looked more like a man who might regularly be mistaken for a mobster than an actual mobster.
“We have a mutual friend,” he told her.
She wondered why it had taken so long for this kind of thing to happen. “Eugenie?”
“I don’t know what her name is,” he said. “She gave me Yolanda Baptiste.”
“What do you want from me?”
“I need to know where she is.”
“I don’t know where she is and I don’t know who you are.”
He held out his hand with a business card. “Vernon St. Urgis. I’m a property developer.”
She took the card and looked at it, half-expecting it to say something else.
“She owes me some serious money,” he said. “I hired a man—Serbian—to look for her.”
She didn’t know what to say to that. “Is that what Serbs do these days,” she asked, “find people?”
“They’ve got that painting back in the Customs House in Salem. Did you know that? The theft was all hush-hush. They didn’t want to be like the Gardner with the lost Vermeer.”
“There’s a world of difference between that painting and a Vermeer.”
“Still, the picture went missing and then the picture turns up.”
“How much does she owe you?” asked Daphne.
“Lots. She owes me lots. There’s a ghostwriter they hired.”
“I don’t know,” he said with a chuckle. “The bad guys, I guess.”
“Who are the bad guys?”
He shrugged. “All I know is I’m not one of them.”
“What did they hire the ghostwriter to write about?”
“About the four old guys at her séances, the ones you’ve been paling around with.”
“Did your Serb tell you that?”
“He told me a couple of them died.”
“You didn’t need a detective to tell you that. You could’ve read the Herald.”
“All I want is my money.”
“What’s this person writing about the four men?”
“I gotta go. But I’m telling you: she shows up, you send her to me. Tell her I’m looking for her.”
“Who hired the writer?”
He put on his mobster glasses. “Get yourself a Serb and find out.”