For the better part of a year when she couldn’t find work, Daphne took many walks through Mount Auburn Cemetery and read a lot of Robert Nozick, a philosopher who could express his degree of certainty to the fractional level—“I one-quarter think,” “I three-quarters think.”
Her unemployment wasn’t sudden but a culmination of false starts. She’d pulled her book from publication, unhappy with the dissertation on which it was based as well as the university press willing to take it. She’d tried teaching literature at a state school but couldn’t stomach the politics of lesser academia. She’d helped a difficult woman acquire and edit poetry monographs and later worked for a cultural journal whose editor had received a large grant, raced through the money in record time, and folded the publication eight months after the lavish launch party.
Walking around a cemetery and reading Nozick reminded her of an important fact she already knew: There was no way to welcome death into your life. But this was offset that spring by landing a job at Live Every Day, being given a Cadillac De Ville, and falling in love.
In early May, Mount Auburn was a magnet for migrating birds and the humans who watch them. Ravenous with hunger, every other flecked, throated, or billed flyover touched down at the cemetery like it was the Turnpike’s only Roy Rodgers with a working bathroom. Summer, too, was big for multitudes of robins. They’d alight on gravestones in a glimmer and sparkle, like a magician’s trick with two fingers and an egg. They were forever canvassing the grounds on their relentless worming expeditions, prospecting for what those grade-school dirges warned about come your own passing: the worms crawl in, the worms crawl out, the worms play pinochle in your mouth.
In autumn, it seemed like the trees could never agree on how quickly (and with how much feeling) their leaves should die for the camera. Some maintained the ruse of photosynthesis until pummeled by snow; others shed all at once, a sudden spectacle of interlocking elbows à la Martha Graham. And then there were the flash mobs of deciduous peacocks striking the high notes together.
Long before Daphne had stepped foot in Massachusetts, she’d heard about the cemetery from her uncle. “American cities are laid out in grids,” he told her. “Cemeteries are the opposite. Places like Mount Auburn are all concentric circles. Cities are for the living who have places to go. Cemeteries are for thinking about the dead, meandering pathways for people with all the time in the world.”
The chimeric nature of Mount Auburn made Daphne think even more about Jack than usual. He had a botanist’s knowledge of trees and a superhuman ability to answer any question correctly. If you wondered why a tree had some dead wood he would remind you of the invisible continual battle going on underground among the competing roots. He would point out “invasive” trees like Norway and sycamore maples—trees that, although they looked nice enough, were stealing the ground space of natives. He thought the stand of elms along Literary Walk in Central Park was one of the greatest sights in the country, a thing for everyone and their kiddies to go and see. He’d been a student of Buckminster Fuller’s at Black Mountain College, and despite his preoccupation with the layers of salt over oil fields, he had a mystical streak, always carrying a tiny printing of the poems of Tibor Brull in his back pocket.
At the time of these walks, it was a nonbeliever who mostly had Daphne’s ear. She’d brought him to Mount Auburn because she couldn’t believe he never made a pilgrimage to Bucky’s grave given his family history. In the 1930s, the father of the nonbeliever’s father—a Polish immigrant with no formal training in anything, a complete autodidact—was hired by Fuller to work as an engineer for his ill-fated Dymaxion Corporation. The grandfather’s first wife had died young, and hard times had compelled him to surrender his infant to strangers—a painful family history that the nonbeliever called “our dark matter.” The grandfather later made a name for himself as a designer of kitchens and bathrooms. The red and blue on the hot and cold water spigots came from Bucky’s Dymaxion Bathroom, on which the grandfather happily capitalized. Meanwhile, the father of the nonbeliever’s mother—an anti-Semitic Swiss physicist famous for being all three of those things—carried out a lifetime campaign of petty discrimination against his son-in-law’s family.
“Look at the dates,” Daphne had pointed out to him. “Bucky’s wife was born exactly six months before him and died two days after he did.”
They were Unitarians, Bucky and Anne. In 1983 she was comatose and dying of cancer. While Bucky was with her at the hospital he exclaimed, “She’s squeezing my hand!” He then stood, suffered a heart attack, and was dead in an hour. Anne died thirty-six hours later.
“See,” said Daphne, “some people do live a long time together.”
He called Unitarians “a librarians’ cult” (that was a joke) and said that it was actually “believers” who were parochial and human-centric, whereas questioners were the more “spiritual,” not reliant on whims of emotion. He had hoped to spend a lifetime testing his own theory about time and the entropy of the universe. His favorite word was unitarity, a quantum principle holding that the sum of possibilities of all probable outcomes of any event is always 1. It means that information cannot disappear, as Stephen Hawking had once thought would happen if an object were chucked into a black hole.
Daphne suggested the possibility of a happy medium between Unitarian librarians and the indifferent universe by quoting Wallace Stevens: “God is in me or else is not at all.” He preferred the philosophy of John Leslie, who believed that each of us is immortal because the lives we live are but an aspect of an existentially unified cosmos that will persist after our death. According to Leslie, the universe could be explained by reference to its value; its goodness could be the creative force that produced it.
She was more than willing to substitute Leslie for Stevens, but the nonbeliever thought any happy medium a tough sell. On some things he had no patience. He would complain when she absently started to whistle. “You drive people crazy because no one can tell the tune. It’s like some secret riddle.” She didn’t know whether this was true but assumed the whistling was a subconscious channeling of her uncle. His tune might start off as anything but usually morphed into “Can We Still Be Friends,” the old Todd Rundgren song.
The nonbeliever was fascinated by some very simple things—lanterns, kerosene, fire light. He said he sometimes felt like the top of an enormous Smoky Mountains hemlock that had died, for up there the flora living off the dead tree continued to thrive as if nothing had happened. “I’m from Chicago,” he told her when they met, “but I have negative family there, so that’s a spot erased on a map.” The five people who died on him each had a different zodiac sign, so as far as he was concerned, those five signs were also erased—stricken from astrological charts. Five people and two dogs.
He asked if she believed in ghosts. No, did he? “My mother said that her first real memory was playing tag with a woman who turned out to be a ghost. She got lost with some other girls outdoors at a wedding. Because of this story, I was always waiting for my mother to show up as a ghost. I’d look out the window at the backyard early in the morning, and I’d try to will it that I’d see the ghost of my mother doing the Electric Slide with the ghost of my sister. But she never did. They never did.”
When they passed Cyprus Avenue after viewing Bucky’s grave, he whistled the notes that went with “down on Cyprus Avenue” from the Van Morrison song, causing them both to sing parts of his other songs—“gardens all misty wet with rain” “and “I will never ever grow so old again.” The nonbeliever later visited the cemetery without her and reported, “I was lost, and then I found myself on the Daphne Path.” She assured him, “We can make our own place on a map.”
She’d brought the nonbeliever to Connecticut to meet her mother, to show Rosemary Passerine it was possible that her daughter might be happy. Her mother and the pilot, Ford, were fighting some neighbors over access rights to a communal well, and Ford was angry because her mother wouldn’t help lift one layer of the legal snafu by consenting to marry him. Rosemary Passerine wasn’t ever getting married again—everyone knew that. She was charming and warm during the visit, but the next evening she phoned to ask if Daphne’s new boyfriend had met Nancy. Daphne couldn’t lie; she told her he’d already met the West Coast clan when they came to Nantucket. The chilly silence was nothing new, but this time it went on and on.
The full effect of Daphne’s mother could not be experienced over the phone. She was most effective when she sat in a chair and gazed at you impassively while tilting her head. Was it grief, despair, regret, or boredom she was seized with? It took Daphne years to realize that this was the Modigliani poster on every ingénue’s dorm wall when her mother was in college. Her mother had synthesized every Modigliani portrait of a seated young woman in that pose of tranquil melancholia.
Daphne couldn’t bring herself to hang up on her mother, so she was stuck hanging on. Finally a voice: “Was I such a terrible mother? I never made you get down on your knees to say prayers.”
In her newfound happiness, Daphne was averse to starting fights. “Thank you for that.”
“You wanted to go out there from the start, straining like a dog on its leash.”
It was true that Daphne was always meaning to move to the West Coast later on, to resettle herself in the shadow of her father’s family. Those were her mother’s words when Daphne graduated college: “I suppose now you’re going to go out there, to resettle yourself in the shadow of your father’s family.”
“You abandoned me,” her mother continued on the phone, marshaling steam. “You never helped me.”
“I didn’t think that was my job.”
“Who else did I have, Daphne? Who else was there on God’s green earth to help me? I was a pariah and you the coldest fish in the ocean.”
For a while in 2000, Daphne saw a shrink who recently became famous for a best-selling book about couples who divorce and later remarry, as happened to him and his second wife.
“Just because your parents didn’t care what you wanted,” he suggested, “that doesn’t mean others don’t care.”
At the time she was preoccupied with being a rotten person. “I three-quarters think you’re full of shit.”
“Why are you so enamored of being an outsider?”
“I’ve been listening to a song that goes ‘cut the kids in half.’ My parents aren’t alone in what they did.”
“A lot of people want you to be living in a way that allows for happiness.”
“I can’t even imagine what would allow for happiness.”
“Why do you think the only good things that can happen are the things your mind can imagine happening? We learn to love life because of the surprising ways in which we find fulfillment.”
“You’re saying self-help things again.”
“In order to thrive,” he insisted, “you need to recognize possibility.”
“It’s not that I don’t recognize it,” she argued, “but I live what I feel, and what I feel is what Emerson did when he wrote of the ‘the oppressive sense that possibility has been foreclosed.’ ”
“You’re never short on the Dickinson and Emerson, are you?”
“And you’re never short on the Norman Cousins and Jon Kabat-Zinn.”
He shook his head. “We can’t play this game anymore.”
She sang, “But can we still be friends?”