Trygve Frost hit the brakes in front of a drooping walkway canopy leading to what looked like a Knights of Columbus lodge on the skids. Swags of icicle lights clung for dear life to the faded crimson canvas. On the left a fluorescent salon called Totally Now Nails; on the right a white-stucco church right out of a Bolivia travel brochure if not for near-total strangulation by a deceased native vine.
Daphne shoved her way out of the popped hatch to assist with the de-planing, shaming the prodigal into following suit. From the passenger side, Simon’s legs unfolded like a rusty aluminum chaise that hadn’t been touched in years. Linus allowed himself to be grasped on both arms for the extraction; Jan on the opposite side required no assistance, his long arms preceding him like tentacles, one gripping the top of the door, the other clamped onto the roof. Elijah heroically shoved out his valise before him, the women-and-children boxed set for the lifeboat.
“I’ve got an errand to run,” Trygve announced just as the sun was preparing to set. “I’ll be back in an hour.”
At the end of the canopy stood a blur of residential and commercial real estate with an elaborate darkened entryway. As Simon’s spindly finger rang the bell, Daphne felt like a gang of trick-or-treaters. One, two, three porch lights tinged aglow—bare yellow bulbs without globes, like a used-car lot promising “Xmas Trees 4 Sale.” The bulbs illuminated three different styles of mailbox: black metal upright, old wicker bicycle basket, aluminum rural with reclining red flag. Each bore a taped piece of paper with crudely written text: “MSS Eugenie.”
The wide oak door creaked open.
“This is the woman!” Jan shouted, lifting his lance-like arm toward the small figure.
“Daphne,” said Linus, “this is our advisor, Mistress Eugenie.”
“Come in!” bellowed a deep voice. “I’m not heating outdoors!”
Short but muscular arms yanked at the yankable forms of Linus and Elijah, and then one free hand grabbed Daphne’s to shake it, pulling her into an oblique din, a tinny muddle of music and television voices.
With a light-brown skin-tone, crimson bindi, and layers of saris, the squat woman was of an indistinguishable age—late fifties/early sixties was Daphne’s guess. Her dark hair was streaked with white and pulled back in a chignon.
“So here’s that girl who lies about her name!” she exclaimed.
“She asked us if you were a good witch or a bad witch,” said Elijah merrily.
“And did you tell truth?” the mistress asked.
“I’m afraid,” Linus began, “that Elijah complicated the matter by posing the question ‘Healing goddess or broker of evil?’ ”
“I don’t let this joshing burn me,” she said to Daphne with a throaty laugh. “These guys here—my best confidents.”
They stood in a large, dully lit foyer flanked on two sides by archways to large rooms with enormous tables; the stairway ahead was open and segmented but obstructed by stacked cardboard boxes filled with papers heaving out from Pent-a-Flex folders.
“Simon,” said Eugenie, shaking her head sorrowfully, “Your son did not do for me his commitment.”
“My son is useless!”
“One good slap to his kisser!”
Daphne heard a West Indian accent, but the woman’s face said Mezo-American, perhaps even a onetime passionflower in off-the-shoulder blouses and fringed shawls, batting raccoon eyelids at the men in bodegas. Only now the passionflower wore thermal underwear beneath her saris, attached one to another with Velcro strips.
“My dear madam,” said Simon abruptly, “how many times must I ask you to please, please turn off that blasted man when we are on the premises!”
Amid the consuming din, Daphne recognized the voice of Thornton Winkill, the talk-radio zealot heard everywhere in the months before the midterms.
“Cool your jets,” Eugenie grumbled as she walked toward the adjacent room.
The place was god-awful hot. It even smelled hot—hot and cluttered with a derelict odor on the verge of stench. When Eugenie had turned off the portable radio on the table, the cacophony from other parts of the house was no less difficult to disentangle. “White Lines” by Grandmaster Flash was discernible, overlaid by even more distant music and talk-radio chatter—the WBZ Sky Eye in tandem with Destiny’s Child in tandem with Rush Limbaugh. The overall effect was similar to white noise, only unpleasant, assaulting white noise, like they say you can never get away from in prison.
Mistress Eugenie collected coats, hats, and scarves that she dumped atop the stacked cardboard boxes on the stairs. Then she led the group into the other main room, the focal point of which was an over-the-mantle charcoal sketch of the Beatles right before their breakup—beads, granny glasses, walrussy moustaches. The picture was illuminated from below, so that with the shadows and the thick coating of dust, the Fab Four could pass for shamans. The mistress walked over to their likenesses and declared, “I love every Beatle,” reaching up high with her knuckle to tap each on the chest. Then she made four more taps on herself via the sign of the cross before blowing a kiss toward her fourfold love. “Instant karma gonna get . . . YOU!” she shouted, turning suddenly and pointing an Uncle Sam finger at Daphne.
Daphne stood mesmerized. A few torchiere lamps lit the large space minimally, but Daphne could make out gilded-frame depictions of zodiac constellations around the room’s perimeter.
“Why seven and not twelve?” she asked of the constellations.
“I run out a space, you know?” said Eugenie.
“The final frontier!” quipped Elijah.
“Elijah, I need more walls!” she exclaimed, slamming her palm on one of them. “All you guys help me out here why not? What Eugenie needs is new West Wing like the TV show. By the way, I’m crazy for that president guy.”
The furnishings consisted of two banged-up Victorian settees, a large velvet wing chair, marble-top tables intermixed with smoke-glass-and-chrome coffee and end tables and two parts of a velour sectional sofa. Two stuffed birds perched menacingly on either end of the mantle—a taxidermist’s paring it seemed, apparently falcons but the feathers had dirtied to pigeon gray. Also on display were three dime-store tapestries—one of Che Guevara and two others of Latin-dictator-looking men. An enormous picture window stylistically inconsistent with the house provided yet another attraction, filled as it was with dozens upon dozens of glass objects dangling by fishing line—battalions of New England colored bottles but also cheesy Christmas ornaments. One was a red glass heart that made Daphne think of the song “Heart of Glass” just as Mistress Eugenie again pointed the Uncle Sam finger: “Blondie!”
The trick served only to annoy.
“I am right?” Eugenie prodded, beaming with satisfaction.
Daphne could tell there were exterior floodlights directed at the window’s glasses. “Lots of people must think that,” she said sharply.
The mistress asked Jan, “Do you think ‘Blondie’ when you look at my window?”
The theologian, as always, seemed angry. “Apothecary in Leiden! Amateur boxer who turned in children to the Gestapo!”
“Talking of children,” said Eugenie, absently grabbing a large wooden bowl off an ornate console, “take them home, eat them up!” She proceeded to toss boxes of Mike and Ike candies onto the room’s large round table. “I never get tricksy-treats in this house,” she said, winking at Daphne, “’cept for you guys, right?”
Daphne didn’t know where to look.
“You guys and YOU,” she said, slamming the bowl on the table, “sit right down. But don’t eat candy because I got different treats for you.”
“What kind of treats?” asked Linus as he took a chair.
“What day is this, Linus?”
“The Epiphany, my dear.”
“Twelfth Night!” Jan chimed in.
“And what do we eat on Twelfth Night?”
“Cake!” exclaimed Elijah, negotiating the valise at his chair-side. “Like French peasants.”
“Don’t talk about me like peasant when I’m getting your treats. No tricks on Mistress Eugenie—you got that?”
When she disappeared beyond the foyer, Daphne, seated and staring at the boxes of candies, could no longer suppress tears.
“There, there, my dear,” Linus consoled with abundant sympathy. “Mistress Eugenie is not to be feared.”
“She is not the broker of evil,” said Jan, for once suppressing a shout.
“The woman is a colorful character,” Simon added plaintively.
“I accept full blame for being so flip,” said Elijah. “Mistress Eugenie poses no harm.”
“Not to you,” Linus added, “or to us.”
Daphne felt piercing shame—a familiar response to her incorrigible weakness. “It’s not her,” she finally replied, glancing about a room she couldn’t even see. “I’m not afraid of her.”
“That’s a relief!” shouted Jan.
“Then why are you crying?” asked Linus.
The four men looked with such tenderness that her eyes teared even more. “I don’t like to remember” was all she could get out.
“Honey,” said Elijah sweetly, “we’d like to remember but can’t.”
“I mean,” she continued, accepting a tissue from Simon, “this place is like a bad dream. If you dreamt you were in a strange place that made no sense, it would be a place like here—hot, smelly, barely lit, bizarre furniture. And why all this sound coming from—where? Who else is here with her causing this racket? It’s like an electronics store in Times Square. Doesn’t it give you headaches?”
“We’re old men,” Elijah said gently. “We can’t hear either.”
“I don’t think there’s anyone else here but her,” said Linus, “and us.”
“No more tears now,” said Jan as Daphne blew her nose into a tissue smelling of Ben Gay.
“I warned you not to talk about me and you have disappointed!”
Daphne was amazed they could hear the woman’s voice within such a din. Eugenie carried a large tray of food that she set on the table to display slices of exquisite confections on ivy-patterned china, each plate equipped with a small antique fork, three-pronged and dangerous-looking. “Don’t touch till I come back with the wine,” she warned before again taking leave.
“I don’t think you should be drinking wine here,” whispered Daphne.
“Nothing to fear,” said Linus.
“I’m afraid we have no choice,” said Simon. “Our mistress is deliberate and persistent.”
Linus smiled. “Like those old women in London who are deliberate and persistent feeders of pigeons.”
“She’ll have your head on one of these plates if she hears you calling her old,” said Elijah.
“She’s already got a couple stuffed pigeons in there,” said Daphne, motioning with her head.
“Why, those are birds of prey!” Jan cried in objection.
“Are you familiar with la galette des rois?” Linus asked Daphne.
“Is that the cake with the prizes inside?”
“Yes, but only one prize, or feve.”
“Pope Julius II!” Jan shouted. “He was the one who chose the 6th for Le Jour des Rois.”
“In Mexico and Latin America,” Simon explained, “a likeness of the infant Jesus became the sole currency of this feve business.”
“In Europe the lucky charm was originally a bean,” Linus continued, “the symbol of fertility. Whoever found it in his or her slice of cake became king or queen for the day and had to buy a round of drinks for the co-celebrants.”
“Cheap people would swallow the bean!” said Jan.
“You mean smart people,” Elijah corrected.
“And because of that,” Linus continued, “the lucky charm was made of china.”
“China?” Daphne asked.
“Plastic today,” he replied.
“Nothing bad with plastic!” Eugenie shouted from the archway.
Daphne was perplexed at how the woman could even hear them. She wondered if there was a microphone concealed somewhere under the table.
Eugenie now carried a smaller tray bearing a wine bottle and downturned glasses. “You are all beggars at my table!”
She set down the tray between Linus and Simon, asking of the latter, “Good enough?”
Simon tilted and rolled the bottle on its base: “Guigal Condrieu Luminescence 1999. Madam, you are a sorceress.”
The mistress produced a corkscrew from somewhere in the folds of her saris and scored and uncorked the bottle like a sommelier. “Each take your glass!” she ordered. As she emptied the bottle in six installments, Daphne was relieved to have seen the bottle unsealed, greatly reducing the risk of being slipped a liquid feve.
“Choose your poison,” the hostess declared of the slices of cake.
“Traditionally,” Linus explained, “the youngest person in the room hides under the table and shouts out which guest each slice of cake should be given to.”
The four men looked at Daphne.
“They all look the same to me,” she replied. “It doesn’t matter who gets what.” Then she added, “But why are there seven plates?”
“In case visitor comes to my table,” said Eugenie with a smile. She distributed the plates, placing the seventh at the table’s center, amid the boxes of candy. “Comme ca?” she asked Daphne, who thought for a moment before switching her plate with the seventh in the center.
“Elijah!” Eugenie trumpeted as she dropped into a chair, “have you finally, finally, finally brought for me documents?”
“I have,” he said proudly.
“Then we drink to that!” she exclaimed, raising her glass.
The four men ceremoniously followed suit; Daphne the straggler lifted her glass only slightly, tilting it toward Elijah. When all had drunk the wine, she asked, “What documents?”
“His story of Pandora,” said Eugenie. “I have my confidents write a story of their person. Standard procedure for confidents who know me. My friends Linus, Simon, Jan all answer my wishes, but not Elijah for months and months.”
“Until now,” said the critic gallantly. He picked up the valise he’d trundled along beside himself like Marley’s chains. He clicked free the locks and pulled from within a brief stack of manuscript that he handed across the table.
“We now have our contract,” Mistress Eugenie declared with satisfaction, placing the papers under the plate from which she ate.
Daphne felt she might explode with anger. She grabbed a fork and shoved cake in her mouth like she was putting out a fire. The four of them were willingly turning over biographical information to the woman. Could it get any easier?
“Ow,” she mumbled, dropping her fork. She reached into her mouth to remove an object.
“It looks like Daphne has found the feve,” said Linus.
“Queen for a day!” Elijah exclaimed.
“El Niño Bonito!” Eugenie seconded.
Daphne could see only yellow. “Is it a bean?”
“Look and see!” cried Eugenie.
“Cerca trova!” Simon added with relish.
Daphne returned the object to her mouth, rolling it around with her tongue before spitting the product into her palm.
“Eh?” asked the mistress.
“It’s a bird,” said Daphne, briefly lifting her eyes to the woman.
“Just what you wanted, eh? Yellow bird?”
Daphne looked away to the nearly full glass of wine in front of her, wondering why it didn’t say DRINK ME.
“So you want to know things,” said Eugenie, nodding at Daphne. “So we will tell you things.”
Daphne looked at each man. “You mean I can ask questions?”
“Some,” said Linus with a smile.
“OK,” she began in a gamely fashion. “Where are the phones from?”
“Me!” Eugenie shouted. “I am phone czar!”
“Czarina,” Elijah corrected.
“Why phones?” asked Daphne.
“Why not?” she replied, smiling and raising an eyebrow.
“It’s how the living world communicates,” said Linus.
“Where did you get them?” asked Daphne. “I know they work. At least Linus’s does. There has to be a Nextel or a Cingular providing the signal.”
“Oh, there is signal,” said Eugenie with a sly grin.
“So who’s working it?” Daphne pressed. “Who’s paying?”
The mistress laughed. “You don’t pay for what I can give. We don’t have minutes to count up and say You owe me this much pay up now. We don’t have plan you pick for friends and family so everyone is happy talk, talk, talk. We don’t have that. We have the phones I give when I know, and my business says I should hold secret what I know.”
“Has anyone made contact?” asked Daphne, glancing at the men. “Have you made contact?” she asked Eugenie.
“Let me tell you a story, OK?” the mistress proposed. Daphne’s silence caused Eugenie to stare with a brow now furrowed. “I said OK with you over there?”
“Yes, OK with me,” said Daphne testily.
“Here,” said Eugenie, leaning forward to touch the seventh plate with her fingertips, freeing it from the Mike and Ike barricade and shoving it like a shuffleboard puck. Daphne caught it before it smashed into the empty plate in front of her. “You eat galette,” Eugenie ordered. “Who knows? Maybe you get baby Jesus, too.
“OK now,” she continued. “These guys come to me because they know I am the best. You don’t go nowhere else but to Eugenie. So they come to me and give me the names—Maja, Edwina, Anna, Pandora. Boom, boom, boom, boom—four names. I got that. All died young age twenty-five.”
Daphne looked skeptically at the men. “Is that true? All were twenty-five?”
They solemnly nodded.
“Like I always do,” Eugenie went on, “I say ‘Talk to me, ladies.’ And what I hear is just the one lady—nice lady, pretty, pretty voice—saying, ‘Five aspects classical rhetoric.’ And me, I’m like, ‘What is that?’ ‘Five aspects classical rhetoric,’ she goes on, like I should know that. What do I know? I know Buffy Vampire Slayer, but five aspects classical rhetoric I have a time with. I ask the lady, ‘Who are you? Maja, Edwina, Anna, Pandora? All’s I get is ‘five aspects classical rhetoric.’”
“Can I guess,” said Daphne, “that Maja would be to Jan and Edwina to Simon?”
“Yes and yes,” Simon replied.
“Maja Fenstad!” Jan shouted. “Do you know her brother?”
Daphne was now accustomed to Jan’s outbursts of logistical non sequiturs, but this one took the cake. What was she supposed to say? Yes, I debated him in ninth grade. We were in the same homeroom. He mowed our lawn one summer.
“The economist Trygve Fenstad,” Linus explained.
“I should mention,” Simon added, “that my son was named after this great Norwegian economist who was not known as such by you and the rest of the world because he was murdered by the Nazis.”
“Maja to Jan, Edwina to Simon, Anna to Linus, Pandora to Elijah,” Eugenie declared. “All lovely ladies; all died too young age twenty-five with too much sadness. After so many years, they have much to tell.”
The dramatis personae of Anna, Edwina, and Maja had the makings of a Chekhov play; Pandora, however, aside from the obvious ominous connotation, reminded Daphne of the mother-in-law on Bewitched.
“We’re pretentions old men,” said Linus, half smiling.
Eugenie glowered like a Basque dowager.
“I mean by naming our group,” he added. “The German affectation only ices the cake.”
“Delusions of grandeur!” shouted Jan.
“Have you heard of The Five of Hearts, Daphne?” demanded Simon.
She squinted in thought. “Didn’t that have something to do with Henry Adams?”
He appeared mildly impressed. “It was the name of an intellectual circle thought to be exclusive—probably more so to themselves. The hearts were Adams and his wife, the geologist and mountain-climber Clarence King, and secretary of state John Hay and his wife. The colossal capitalism of the Gilded Age was fertile ground for these groups.”
“Like the Metaphysical Club,” said Linus. “A powwow of sorts begun by Wendell Holmes Junior, William James, Charles Peirce, and John Dewey.”
“Everybody wanted into the act,” said Elijah.
“And we are throwbacks!” cried Jan.
“Gentlemen, mesdames,” said Simon gruffly, tapping at his wristwatch, “the time. We need to wrap this up before our driver returns. My loving son waits for no man or beast.”
Daphne looked down to her stopped watch just as the mistress jumped up and busily grabbed dishes. She swatted away Daphne’s attempts to help. “You take days off my life when you try to do work for me!”
Sometime between Eugenie’s exit with a tray of dishes and her return, Thornton Winkill could again be heard on one of her radios. This time Elijah was first responder: “Now how did he get brought back to life?”
Winkill’s widely syndicated radio show, The National Inquisitor, accounted for only a fraction of his doings. He ran a conservative lobbying outfit, was an off-an-on presidential advisor, and served as ringleader of the Out of My Face coalition—“for the guy who wants to practice his faith, make shitloads of money, and love his gun and hate fags without being sodomized by the liberal tax stick.”
“Can you please shut him off?” Daphne snapped when Eugenie returned from the kitchen.
“That guy there,” she replied matter-of-factly, “he is confident of mine.”
“Him?” Daphne shouted. “That sleazebag?”
Winkill was also the founder of One Nation under God, the tax-reform organization claiming that the sinfulness of income and sales taxes is clearly spelled out in Scripture. He was a failed economist (kicked out of Princeton), a Harvard MBA, and now a millionaire who managed to elude prison when he killed a woman in Oklahoma while driving drunk.
“Madam, please,” Simon said sternly. “You must understand that the man is a cretin not merely because he is a cretin, but because he has defamed me.”
She shook her head. “He makes lots’a money.”
As Daphne stared in disbelief, Winkill tore through the background: “so this guy, the feeble-prick liberal piss pot I’m talking about . . . ”
“Is Winkill calling a dead wife, too?” she asked Eugenie.
“Nah,” the mistress replied, “his old wives not dead. Deadbeats though.”
“ . . . this self-righteous tax-your-ass goon,” the voice continued, “this we-shall-overcome hunk of hemorrhoid—oh, let’s say we call the puke Mr. Dowling.”
“What did he just say?” Daphne cried.
“He said the puke is Mister Dowdy,” Eugenie replied.
“Dowling is what the man said!” Simon shouted. “Please, madam, turn that devil off!”
“OK, OK,” said Eugenie, again heading into the other room.
“He said Mr. Dowling,” Daphne appealed to Linus. “He just said Mr. Dowling.”
“We must ignore the ravings of a man like that.”
“I know he’s raving,” she replied, “but why did he just say Mr. Dowling? I told you at the cemetery, Linus—about my godfather, Mr. Dowling. God the Father. Can someone tell me why he just said Mr. Dowling and why she says she knows him?”
“Hey!” Eugenie yelled as she approached from the foyer. “I don’t know a Mister Dowdy, OK? And don’t say ‘she says’ when I am right here. You have respect for people—you got that?”
Daphne’s head was spinning in the hot room.
“Aw, honey,” said the mistress, now affectionate as she reached to pat Daphne’s arm. “Don’t you pay no attention to my Winkle.”
Daphne pulled away. “Winkle?”
“We gotta end friends today, okey-doke? No bad feelings when you leave my house, okey-doke? You are queen for my confidents—you found feve. And you know what else? The galette—that was plate I set for lady with pretty voice. I thought she might join my table. But you ate her treat. You ate our lady’s cake.”
Before leaving the room with her guests, Mistress Eugenie walked over to make four taps on the Beatles and a parallel four—father, son, Holy Ghost—on herself before this time blowing her kiss to Daphne.
An extended session of obnoxious honking from the street prompted the reengagement with coats and hats and scarves and a not-so-swift exodus under the faded crimson canopy. Returned to her cage, Daphne could only brood. “Do you really believe Winkill is her ‘confident’?”
No one said a word.
“I read in the Post that he collects pornographic scrimshaw,” Trygve finally offered from the front. “Apparently his collection is insured with Lloyd’s.”
“But if she does have some kind of relationship with him,” said Daphne, “that shows she has no ethics. And why does she put on that ‘I’m from the old country’ show? I think she drops all of her articles on purpose, like an old Gilda Radner skit.”
The men’s continued and seemingly resolute silence caused Daphne to concede defeat. She asked Trygve to let her off in Davis Square. “I need to walk home,” she told them.
It had started to snow when Trygve released the hatch from where he sat and Daphne struggled out of her cage. “Here, Linus,” she said. She had carefully removed the napkin from her pocket and leaned inside to poke it, rolled like a diploma, through the caging. “Don’t forget this.”
“That is for you to keep, my dear.”
She opened Elijah’s biography of Philip Larkin, coincidentally to the title page, where the exaggerated signature did indeed read “Philip Roth,” and closed the napkin therein.
Linus, visibly troubled, shouted after her: “We hate to see you upset, Daphne.”
She paused with the hatch raised, the four men turning in discomfort to stare forlornly. I could end it here, she told herself, leave them to their phones and their stories of their persons. What did she owe them anyway?
“Someone I knew,” she began. “He had cats named Mike and Ike—brothers. They were so mellow; they never meowed. I loved those cats, but they ran away.”
As Trygve’s taillights bled into the traffic, Daphne used her umbrella as a weapon against the squalling snow. The Square was bustling with students in groups and pairs or alone but on the phone, either negotiating what lie ahead or debriefing on what just transpired. This was how the world had come to be—this incomprehensible tangle of experiences being narrated before they had the opportunity to be consummated. Sometimes Daphne felt that passersby on their phones were desperately trying to drink in something from their correspondents: give me your life, your essence; I need your validation. They were like vampires or maybe an odd kind of zombie that doesn’t want to eat you, only to have your constant company, because when alone this zombie doesn’t exist; it simply disappears.
“No one should be alone,” a passerby counseled her phone. Despite her sulking mood, Daphne had to laugh at this coincidence, turning to look at the girl walking away under the raised hood of her North Face jacket, so ordinary in her zeal for what comes next: “And I’m like, dude!”
And I’m like, dude! she thought, the flakes of snow swirling up under her umbrella, melting on her cheeks and chin. She placed Elijah’s book inside her coat and held it close to her chest. She wondered if it was really this old book she was protecting and not herself from a faraway memory that had come out of nowhere—of a man who had wanted to get at her face in the paradoxical way of the snow, frenetic and then gentle, to kiss it over and over and over, as if there would never be enough time.