What Ever Happened to Daphne?
I am driving Daphne north to New Limerick on a late October day, nearly a year after we first met. Daphne has never learned to drive — the bus ride from Portland is long, and she has not been back for many months. Her phone calls home are now as rare as if she lived in a foreign country. She started a new job in June, conducting phone interviews for a marketing-research company. It is part-time, but she finds she can do this work well. It is nearing five when we reach her house. Her mother will soon be home from her job at Wal-Mart in Houlton. I drop Daphne off at the house, which is just as she described it — a pickup without a motor sits in the front yard; a few feet away, a yellow Jeep with a splintered windshield and no brakes, as if untouched since her childhood. I say I’ll go to Houlton and pick up pizzas for everyone.
I return an hour or so later. Daphne lets me in. I walk through the living room dominated by her father’s motorcycle that will be stored here for the winter, then into the ” ‘dining room,’ although there hasn’t been a table in there for years,” where her father keeps his collection of 20 guns. The house needs attention. “It’s not pretty,” Barbara will soon tell me, “but it’s paid for.” She will add that their property taxes are $58.62 a year. Daphne’s father is growing deaf in his left ear, and his voice dominates a room. I hear him rising over the conversation before I see him. Daphne had called him “the genius of Houlton.” He’d bring canisters of helium and let the children experiment to see what they could lift with balloons and plastic bags. He brought home an old computer and let them explore its innards.
Her father, mother, brother David, and David’s girlfriend are gathered in the kitchen. Her father looks up, focuses for an instant on the stranger bringing pizzas, and barks, “Talk about Jewish!” Daphne looks away and retreats to the corner with her mother. The room is quiet for a moment, then conversation begins again while pizza boxes are opened.
Her brother David sits on one end of the table with his father. He is broke and out of work. “Everyone in this family is a genius except me,” he says. “From the time I went to school, it was, ‘That’s Daphne’s brother.’ I think it’s a good deal to talk with people who don’t know my family.” His girlfriend says just a few weeks earlier she had told her business teacher she was dating David Brinkerhoff. “He said, ‘Oh, Daphne’s brother.’ ”
Barbara was the first female on both sides of her family to graduate from high school. She sits beside Daphne in a corner of the kitchen, away from the men, smoking Kools. She brushes Daphne’s long hair.
“So, did you feel pressured?” Barbara asks.
“Yes,” says Daphne.
“But you learned to relax.”
“After,” says Daphne.
“Will you go back to grad school?”
“I always put a big effort into not talking about this,” Barbara says. “I got sick of being the mother of a genius. I feel she was a spectacle at school. I was at a school meeting and a teacher said to me, ‘It’s no wonder Daphne’s so smart. Look who her father is.’ ”
At this moment her father is washing down his pizza with donuts and beer and handfuls of salted pine nuts. He holds up his fingers, showing off the stubs on the index finger and thumb of his left hand. He says he blew off the fingertips as a boy while playing with blasting caps. “Makes it easier to open a beer bottle,” he says.
He worked as an electrician at the Louisiana-Pacific Corporation, a wafer wood mill in New Limerick that dominates the area and keeps property taxes low. Then, when Daphne was 14, he left the mill to open a motor repair shop with a friend. The business was not successful. After three years he hurt his back and spent months lying down. His garage became a tinkerer’s haven. In here he has rigged up a generator that runs off a chain saw; he’s invented a way for skidders to start in extreme cold; he says he has yet to see a machine he can’t figure out, yet there’s no backup heat in the house and if anything gets repaired in the house it’s Barbara who must do it. “He never finishes things,” she says. “He works when and for as long as he wants.” He never made much money, but he never cared. His needs were few. “The only way to ride,” he says. “Live cheap and play.
“I have my own little world,” he says. “I construct things for pleasure. I don’t care about using them. Everything is fun to me. People think it’s the end product that you’re after. No, it’s doing the work.” When he’d fire his rifles and pistols and machine guns, the joy came from seeing the machines work to perfection, he says. It distresses him now that his shooting helped destroy his hearing, and his eyesight is also fading.
He speaks slowly, savoring every word with an audience. “I went to high school one year, and they thought I was retarded or something. Sent me to a school psychologist. My stepfather said I’d never amount to anything. There’s only one teacher I remember,” he says. “He was a potato farmer named Byron. If I asked him a question and he didn’t know the answer, he’d say, ‘I don’t know the answer to that, but we can find out.’ And he’d find out.”
Daphne had told me he was singularly unimpressed with her academic achievements. He’d soak up technical manuals, not understanding her desire to read poetry and novels.
“Drivel,” he’d say.