Daphne arrived at Simon’s favorite café to find the surviving half of the Quartet seated and pondering a pair of stainless teapots like they were a chessboard.
“Austeja Dapkunaite!” Jan cried when he noticed her approaching. As she set down the chair she had lifted on the way, he added, “That was her real name!”
Elijah nodded ever so slightly. “The Duchess Va-Va-Voom.”
“They called her Jaja,” said Jan.
The three of them sat without talking. Death was death regardless of the motives of its victims. Jan finally broke the consensual silence: “At least the dog survived!”
“Poor Queequeg,” said Daphne, shaking her head. “He must have PTSD.”
Jan scowled. “What’s that?”
“It means he may have nightmares,” said Elijah.
“They always have nightmares,” scoffed Jan. “Haven’t you ever watched a dog sleep?”
Daphne had to laugh. “Don’t you think they’re having happy dreams about chasing rabbits?”
“My dogs dreamt that I had frikandellen in the skillet that I refused to share with them. So they were nightmares!”
Now Jan returned to brooding. “The man is certainly hateful, but this is terrible what has happened to him.”
“Winkill or Trygve?” asked Daphne.
It was just a single bullet that had entered Thornton Winkill, piercing his spine, with the expectation that he would be unable to walk—like George Wallace, Larry Flynt, and Dr. Strangelove.
“So was it her?” she asked.
Jan shook his head. “I don’t believe she could seek to take a life.”
“Perhaps she thought she was avenging Simon’s,” said Elijah.
“But she left Simon there with Winkill,” argued Daphne. “She set him up.”
“You don’t know that,” said Jan. “You said you arrived, and it was only Simon and him.”
“There’s more to the story,” said Elijah.
“Perhaps she merely meant to frighten him with the bullets,” said Jan. He was upset. “What did she mean by anything? This has come to so much grief!”
“We didn’t understand her motives,” said Daphne. “Or at least I didn’t. If you don’t understand what motivates people, they are as unpredictable as psychopaths.”
“She’s an enigma,” said Elijah. “She’s much older than she looks.”
“I thought she was much younger than she looks,” said Jan.
“She wore too many saris,” said Daphne.
Elijah sang, “Who’s sari now?”
It was all so absurd. How could a clown wield such dangerous power?
“In any event,” said Jan with a sigh, “she is at large.”
Here Elijah turned to his open valise on the floor beside him. “On that discordant note,” he said, struggling to extract the contents, “I have Margie’s goods.”
He produced four inches of yellowed, sloppily aligned manuscript and slapped it on the table the way men in cooking shows did a large intact fish. The musty paper was enveloped by a stained Manila folder and three dingy rubber bands. It reminded Daphne of the stuff heaving out of the Pent-a-flex folders blocking Eugenie’s stairway.
“Anything you want to tell me about it?” she asked.
“Haven’t looked at it,” said Elijah.
She was skeptical. “Nothing?”
“Just this advice: Don’t go over-editing. If the Times had got hold of Cole Porter’s scribbling, we’d be left with To the beat of the drum, night ’n day, you’re the one.”
“Don’t be harsh on Tibor Brull,” said Jan.
“So he is definitely a character?” she asked Elijah.
“I’m assuming. As I said, I haven’t read it.”
“Do you like his work?” she asked Jan.
“As a young man I had one of his books.”
“There weren’t many,” said Elijah.
“Was it Five Winters?” she asked Jan.
“Yes, that’s the one.”
Elijah looked down at the slatternly stack. “Her estate made photocopies of the Brull letters she pinched. They’re somewhere in here.”
“Did you at least read them?” she asked.
He shook his head.
“Aren’t you curious?”
He sighed. “And, Daddy, can I have that big elephant over there?”
She smiled. “Oh, come on, Elijah. Don’t you want to know if the hero takes the bullet at the end?”
This made him smile back at her. “You already sound like Margie.”
“Take the bullet or take the hemlock,” said Jan testily, “someone needs to die if there is to be a book!”
Now Daphne felt sad. “Someone always needs to die.”
Jan stared at her. “So, where is he?”
Elijah made a face. “Where is who?”
Jan continued to look at Daphne. “Where is your X buried?”
She thought for a moment. “He’s not.”
“Then what did you do with his body?” he pressed.
She looked away. “His ashes are in my apartment. In a box. In a corner. His father had a black-sheep brother who claimed all his family’s money. Luckily, I got the ashes.”
“Where did he want them to end up then?” asked Jan.
She stared down at her hands. “He didn’t know he was going to die.”
“Water,” said Elijah. “Water’s always a good place.”
Jan scowled at him.
“He wouldn’t want it to be back in Chicago,” she said. “There was no space at the cemetery with his parents and sister.”
Jan grunted. “Why not throw them in the pond at Mount Auburn? You seem to like throwing things in there.”
She thought on this. “Sometimes I think the reason I don’t get sad at Mount Auburn is because he’s not there.” She looked at Elijah. “Elsewhere underwrites his existence.”
Elijah poured more water into his cup. “The elsewhere that underwrites humankind’s existence is poetry,” he said. “Poetry in all of its nervy manifestations—Camus or Sibelius, the James Gang or statecraft. You will only find consolation if you’ve found poetry.”
After snacks of lemon squares and kiwi tarts and the arrival of Martha Downey in her Skylark, Daphne made sure to hug them both like she might never see them again. When they left on the sad adventure of comforting Susan Frost, she removed the rubber bands and the folder and began turning pages.
How does it happen that a life is erased this perfectly—not merely a singular configuration of molecules but the infinite possibilities of language? The genius I am defending from memory annihilation was not sent to the Gulag or kept just on torment’s edge like Akhmatova. All she did was live—and write.
She was my lover’s neighbor when the brutal part of the erasure occurred. Immediately after, French-speaking nuns—one tall and thin, the other short and fat—came “for poor Emily’s sentimental things” but went away with armfuls of paper. They took it, all of it, her legacy, after he took her life.
What kind of book was this? The unnamed narrator seemed to be Margie, which didn’t at all square with what Elijah had said about her loathing the confessional. The erased life belonged to Emily Hanscomb, whose story sounded too comical to be real—a foundling discovered in a picnic basket on a covered bridge, a rural Catholic parish taking the discarded child as its ward, the nuns like drawings out of the Madeleine books. This Emily went through many rings of hell to arrive in New York in 1941—a “sad little wage-maker” scribbling ad copy for Gimbels while trying to write the Great American Novel, with a hasty marriage to a sailor with the same surname and a fateful encounter with Tibor Brull in the Oak Room bar at the Plaza.
Here was the kicker though: “You knew where to find her if you cared to look—in Room 304 of the New York Public Library.” Had Elijah really not looked at Margie’s manuscript ever? Or was it that he had looked at Margie’s manuscript at another time—say, in 1968, after she died—and that’s where the story of Pandora came from? Daphne had been taught to trust the tale, not the teller, but Elijah as teller had spoken so genuinely of this woman in Room 304. His Pandora seemed so real in his telling. Could this kind of bizarre coincidence happen in the cool and dilute universe?
Daphne found the two badly photocopied letters from Brull—both disappointingly short, both disappointingly French. His handwriting slanted leftward, as if trying to lie down on its back. There was also a microfiche copy of an old newspaper page with most of the paper smudged black: “Woman found dead in 86th Street apt.” Was it this photocopy Elijah saw or the actually paper in 1945? According to what Daphne could read of the article, it was the apartment of a man known as The Faucet King, and it appears to have been accidental, although the NYPD “did not rule out foul play.” A large wall shelf of Asian antiquities had toppled onto her, and she died from head and other injuries. Apparently the brackets had pulled loose from the walls. Those antiquities, said The Faucet King, were priceless. Neither he nor his devastated Queen knew Emily Hanscomb or why she’d been in their apartment.
Marjorie Swain was not the type to write cliché, and maybe that’s why she or someone had written “LIE” in the manuscript margin near the passage about the evil nuns absconding with armfuls of Emily’s papers. According to the narrator, Brull was somehow involved in the foul play—and then he went and jumped off a bridge. There was so much side-story Daphne couldn’t possibly absorb from just skimming pages, but the narrator admits to being “pathologically jealous” of Emily’s talent, of her magnum opus in-progress, parts of which the Margie character has read.
Clearly, Emily Hanscomb has been violated in this entangled past—maybe by one perpetrator in one time and place or by several in different times and places. Daphne had always admired Marjorie Swain’s prose—the strength of her protagonists beneath wrecked lives—while having pity for her addictions and the way she spent her life. But now she wondered if the germ of Frothingham came from this other writer. Had Margie taken what she remembered of Emily’s book for her own after Emily and her manuscript disappeared, or was it Margie herself who carried away Emily’s papers? And who could blame either woman for anything she did trying to gain a literary foothold in a world that kept women down?
The girl behind the counter squeezed the balloon on the Harpo Marx–style rubber horn twice, indicating the café would be closing in fifteen minutes. Daphne had been reading for hours. She looked up to what felt like a new world, one where ghosts no longer frightened—the one seen by the nonbeliever’s dead mother, the one seen by Mr. Dowling’s dead wife, the one in the machines that talked to her. Was it Margie Swain, Emily Hanscomb, or the genius of Mistress Eugenie? Perhaps the manuscript Daphne had seen Elijah give Eugenie that day was a copy of this one. She thought of the “MSS EUGENIE” on the mailboxes and the Fedex bills—“MSS” ought to stand for “manuscripts.” Maybe Eugenie was merely an amalgam of manuscripts—the ones she demanded of all her confidents, the ones that blocked her stairway.
The song that had cycled on to the café’s system was Todd Rundgren’s “Can We Still Be Friends”—incredibly appropriate now that Daphne was thinking about her mother and Jack. The sad drama of so many far-away ghost lives had caused her to wonder why she dwelt so little on the sad drama of her own family.
Let’s admit we made a mistake, but can we still be friends?
Jack survived a total of four run-ins with lightning. His tent was struck by it twice—near Lake Champlain and in the Allegheny highlands of Pennsylvania. Luckily the poles took the charge on both hits. His rental car was struck in the middle of the night while he was driving in Oklahoma, instantly knocking out the electrical system—an “act of God” that insurance doesn’t cover. And lightning struck a pole barn where his research team was hoarding samples of Marcellus shale, setting it ablaze in a massive blue fireball.
. . . can we still get together some time?
His fascination with lightning Daphne found contagious. He told her there were somewhere between 1,500 and 2,000 thunderstorms occurring on Earth at any given time, and that lightning can strike from a clear blue sky, after the storm has wound down to a distant squelch. A fifth of all lightning victims are immediately struck dead. You die because the electrical rhythm of your heart has been interrupted, your cardiomyocytes decimated. Lightning can also halt breathing by shutting down the respiratory drive. It travels over surfaces so fast it doesn’t have a chance to burn. “The miracle with lightning is that so many survive,” he told her, “not that some die.”
We awoke from our dreams, things are not always what they seem . . .
Miracles were not something Daphne ever talked about with her mother. She didn’t even know what her mother believed about God—nothing beyond I didn’t make you get down on your knees and pray. As for the universe, she remembered that her mother took her out of school one day to visit the Rochester Planetarium, where people leaned back in the dark and didn’t speak, gazing at the hugeness of an ersatz universe and its dazzling infinitude of stars, looming almost pornographic above the humbled earthlings. A voice in the dark identified characteristics of the various constellations that blinked a different color on cue. Daphne’s mother had tried to make her laugh by whispering, “Do you think that’s God?” Then she leaned closer to add, “Let’s stay here forever, Daphne, you and me—looking at the stars, all the constellations. Let’s just stay here in the dark with these stars, watching for the lucky ones that burn out and die away.”