Daphne let Elijah and Fifi off at Linus’s apartment, where the mourners were assembling to mostly fret about war. She returned to her office to rummage through the clutter atop her desk. Somewhere there was a pad on which she’d written the campus building where Ed Dowling said he’d be waiting during a break in his conference.
Andy stood watching as she rifled through papers. “How was round two?”
“I met a guy who’s writing something for Vanity Fair on the four of them. He seems to want to be cruel and sensational about their lives. I don’t trust him.”
“Journalism is filled with skanks, Daph.”
She stopped rummaging. “Journalism is filled with holes.”
“By tomorrow, we may have fallen out one of them. They say the Helix picked Friday for the heave-ho.”
“It’s just as well.”
“Hey,” he said, offended. “I’ve got mouths to feed.”
“I’m sorry I said that. I don’t want you to lose your job.”
“I think they’re Mormons.”
“I heard they’re friends with Romney.”
“Maybe he has friends who aren’t Mormons.”
“If they fire us, they better tell us who they are.”
She made a face and shook her head before ripping off a page from the pad.
“I hope you’re not going to another funeral,” he said.
“Worse,” she said. “I’m meeting The Godfather.”
She was not surprised that Ed Dowling had acquired an indistinguishable older-man look. He was handsome in a not-quite-realized way when Daphne knew him as a girl. There just wasn’t the push of a presence that made you burn his appearance to memory. Now she saw the drawbacks of conventional handsome—your features merged to oblivion as you aged.
He had been a successful army engineer and taught engineering for many years at Penn State. Harvard had plans to make its engineering division a self-standing graduate school and was “sniffing around to steal ideas” he told her. “So they called people like me here to powwow.”
He stared at her because obviously he saw her mother from way back when. She kept deflecting his insistent gaze, but it wasn’t one of sexual longing, so she didn’t fault him for giving in to it. It was simply regret of time’s passing. He looked hard, as if wanting to see something he may have missed.
“Your mother when she was your age had a charm,” he told her. “Not beauty so much, but her smile, her laugh. That made you want to always join in. Be happy.”
“I didn’t notice it myself.”
“You’ve turned out like her, in a way.”
“We don’t talk much these days,” she told him.
“For you, it was so long ago, I imagine. For me, not so much. Time goes faster when you get old.”
She felt somewhat sorry for him—that he was old—and tried to be charitable. “Everyone respected your opinion. That’s what I remember growing up.”
“I used to be a religious man then,” he said. “Dorothy was a devout Catholic. After she died I tried to make the pious life work for me. That’s why your parents asked me to be your godfather. Dorothy had just died, and the parish felt they owed me something uplifting. I don’t think your folks were all that religious.”
“My father certainly wasn’t.”
He nodded as if he particularly understood that. “But after two years or so, I really hadn’t much feeling for God. I wasn’t the best choice as godfather.”
“They didn’t have much feeling for God either. Or for each other.”
He looked down at his hands. “I’m sorry everything happened the way it did. Very, very sorry.”
“I’m sorry my family was split in two.”
What made his face indistinguishable stepped aside to allow for a look of regret. “I had hoped you might broker a peace with your mother on my behalf.”
“I can’t broker anything,” she said. “She doesn’t talk to me. You need to go through Paul.”
“Paul told me to talk to you.”
She didn’t feel like looking at him; she didn’t feel like answering. She didn’t want to be in this of all roles. “Why did you do it?” she asked abruptly. “How did you think exposing an affair would help you?”
He inhaled heavily; obviously he had rehearsed for this. “People do awful things for no reason, Daphne. I’m not a bad person.”
“What do you want out of it now?”
“Relief from the guilt—that’s one thing. I’m getting old. I’ve gone through prostate cancer. I tried to talk to your mother about it many years ago, at Jack’s funeral.”
She laughed without looking at him. “That wasn’t the wisest place you could pick.”
“I want to apologize. My wife, Yvonne, is the one who pushed me to contact Paul. She says you can’t carry these things around for this many years.”
“What did my uncle say after you told on them?”
He let out a heavy sigh. “Jack wasn’t upset about it. He said it had to come out sooner or later. But your mother despised me. She told me I had no right to do that to her life. She said I was bitter about my own life and wanted to wreck other people’s, that I was a hateful person.”
He looked like he might cry. Daphne felt ashamed about her mother just like she used to feel ashamed for having a mother who would let her son go.
He lowered his head. “You have to understand what came before in my life to see how your mother’s words affected me so.”
“You lost your wife.”
“Way before,” he said. “When I was young, just starting out on the journey.”
She really didn’t want to hear, but she hadn’t a response.
“The summer before my sophomore year at Cornell,” he began, “I was in this awful car crash, and the kid driving was killed. They thought I was dead too, both of us, whoever the paramedics were. They left me unattended at the crash site for a while and even took the time to call my folks. I always felt I should’ve died there too. How could you not feel guilty for surviving? Especially when we were racing.”
“Who were you racing?”
“Some other guys, hicks in an old jalopy. I didn’t even know the kid who died that well. He was a classmate and his family had a lot of money. I grew up in a village called Esperance—my dad was the only doctor it had ever produced until then—and this kid came to visit in this amazing car. It was a ’48 Packard, but it was designed by Carrozzeria Vignale, the Italian making cars for Maserati and Ferrari.
“Vignale made this red convertible coupe that was set on a ’39 chassis. This kid knew I was a car nut—most engineering students were nuts about some machine—so he drove the car to my folks’ place to show it off. It was such a showpiece it embarrassed my mother. No one around those parts had seen anything like it. So this carload of hillbillies eggs him on to race. It was rural winding roads, and this kid laid on the accelerator. I couldn’t even tell how fast we were going because the speedometer was in kilometers. We were no longer even racing anyone—the jalopy was long gone.”
Daphne wished he would stop, the mysterious, long-ago Mr. Dowling.
“When Dorothy got the lung cancer I felt it was payback time, that God had come calling. Everyone thought her death was tragic for me because I loved her so deeply. But I don’t think I loved her to an insane degree. She’d had a couple miscarriages, and having a family became a monumental challenge for our marriage. She was determined but exhausted, and I was an American man who thought I should have everything American men have.” He paused. “When she got sick . . . like I said: I felt it was payback time. Like my life was never supposed to take.”
Daphne managed to say “I’m sorry.”
“Dorothy had her own ghosts. And I do mean ghosts.”
“What kind?” she asked.
“She insisted that when she was a girl, she’d had a conversation with a ghost on an island in Maine. Even though she was a devout Catholic, she really believed the lady in white was a ghost.”
After some silence, Daphne found the courage to ask, “Did my mother know this?”
He smiled to himself before answering. “Your mother was generous with her time. After we buried Dorothy, your mother would come by with you in the car seat. You must’ve been one or two. We’d talk for hours. We took walks in broad daylight, for everyone to see. She listened to me. I enjoyed our conversations more than anything at that time—maybe more than anything ever.
“I knew she was being a good person, offering me this ‘get-through’ attention. My arrogant self said ‘Remember it’s charity.’ But the get-through turned out to be the thing itself.”
“Were you in love with her?”
He looked away; he couldn’t say it. “Your mother didn’t want to leave your father—that surprised me. She was extremely unhappy. I can’t say what she expected of Jack, but it seems she had no great hopes for them being together. Because—well—he was Jack.”
It hurt her to hear this very distant man say “he was Jack” in that way, as if the defect inherent.
“The fact that I’m a writer is because ‘he was Jack,’ ” she told him. “He was a letter writer, as prolific as any Victorian. He didn’t like to talk on the phone. When we moved around in New York, he told me that when I wanted to talk to him, I should write him a long letter—even if I would never put it in the mail.”
“It’s tragic what happened to him,” he said.
This almost made her laugh. Did he mean it was tragic what he himself did to Jack, or that it was tragic that Jack died in a plane crash at age forty-five? She wondered if there was anyone from her memory who didn’t meet some tragic end. “When did you realize they were lovers?”
He thought how to phrase his answer. “It was at that surprise party she threw for him—the one he hated. He told people he never thought he’d live past thirty, so she threw him a party when he made it. You probably don’t remember.”
“Yes, I remember,” she said. “You did magic tricks.”
He looked her in the eye. “Yes, I did do tricks.”
“You had a yellow bird that you kept making disappear.”
“Yes,” he said. “I played with the kids.”
“You told me, ‘If you can see an X where there is nothing, your wish will come true.’ ”
He didn’t reply.
“I saw the X, saw it as clear as the sunniest day imaginable. I saw the X and I wanted that bird. And you gave it to a boy who didn’t really care. You gave it to the boy and you said to me, ‘I’m afraid you didn’t want it badly enough, Daphne.’ ”
He looked seriously pained, as if someone were daubing a gaping cut with rubbing alcohol. “I made a mistake and I’m terribly sorry.”
This encounter, she thought, could have so many kinds of endings. Maybe none of them was right. She would never know what is the good end to a bad start. But something made her hold out her arm—not her hand so he could take it, but her arm, so he could see the watch.