4

He stayed out all night, but there was no peace to be found, even when walking through the dead of night, much less in the already bustling hour after the dawn. There was no dead of night. He could not remember his exact route, had the impression of having gone across town and back on or around Broadway, but he could remember the sheer volume of the white and colored noise. He could remember the noise dancing in abstract shapes before his red-rimmed eyes. The coat of his linen suit weighed heavily, damply, on his shoulders, yet in the name of rectitude, of how things should be done, he kept it on; also his straw Panama hat. The noise of the city increased almost daily, or perhaps it was his sensitivity to that noise which was being turned up to the screaming point. Garbage trucks like giant cockroaches moved through the city, roaring. He was never out of earshot of a siren, an alarm, a large vehicle’s reverse-gear bleeps, the beat of some unbearable music.

The hours went by. Kieslowski’s characters stayed with him. What were the roots of our actions? Two brothers, estranged from each other and from their dead father, were almost deranged by the power of his priceless stamp collection. A man was told he was impotent and found he could not bear the idea of his loving wife having a sexual future without him. Mysteries drive us all. We only glimpse their veiled faces, but their power pushes us onward, toward darkness. Or into the light.

As he turned into his street, even the buildings began to speak to him in the sonorous manner of the supremely confident, of the rulers of the world. The School of the Blessed Sacrament did its proselytizing in Latin carved in stone. PARENTES CATHOLICOS HORTAMUR UT DILECTAE PROM SUAE EDUCATIONEM CHRISTIANAM ET CATHOLICAM PROCURANT. The sentiment struck no responsive chord in Solanka. Next door, a more fortune-cookie-ish sentiment inscribed in gilded letters rang out from a mighty DeMille-Assyrian entrance. IF FRATERNAL LOVE HELD ALL MEN BOUND HOW BEAUTIFUL THE WORLD WOULD BE. Three quarters of a century ago this edifice, garishly handsome in the city’s brashest manner, had been dedicated, on the cornerstone, “to Pythianism,” without any embarrassment at the clash of Greek and Mesopotamian metaphors. Such plundering and jumbling of the storehouse of yesterday’s empires, this melting pot or metissage of past power, was the true indicator of present might.

Pytho was the ancient name of Delphi, home of the Python, who wrestled Apollo; and, more famously, of the Delphic Oracle, the Pythia being the prophesying priestess there, a creature of frenzies and ecstasies. Solanka could not imagine that this was the meaning of “Pythian’ the builders intended: dedicated to convulsions and epilepsies. Nor could so epic a house be intended for the humble—the grandly, mightily humble—practice of poetry. (Pythian verse is poetry written in the dactylic hexameter.) Some general Apollonian reference was probably intended, Apollo in both his musical and athletic incarnations. From the sixth century Before the Common Era, the Pythian games, one of the great quartet of Panhellenic festivals, had been held in the third year of the Olympic cycle. There were musical contests as well as sporting ones, and the great battle of the god and the snake was also re-created. Maybe some scrap of this would have been known to those who had built this shrine to half-knowledge, this temple dedicated to the belief that ignorance, if backed up by sufficient dollars, became wisdom. The temple of Boobus Apollo.

To the devil with this classical mishmash, Professor Solanka silently exclaimed. For a greater deity was all around him: America, in the highest hour of its hybrid, omnivorous power. America, to which he had come to erase himself. To be free of attachment and so also of anger, fear, and pain. Eat me, Professor Solanka silently prayed. Eat me, America, and give me peace.

Across the street from Pythia’s phony Assyrian palace, the city’s best simulacrum of a Viennese Kaffeehaus was just opening its doors. Here the Times and Herald Tribune could be found inserted into wooden rails. Solanka went inside, drank strong coffee, and allowed himself to join in this most transient of cities’ eternal imitation game. In his now disheveled linen suit and straw Panama, he could pass for one of the more down-and-out habitues of the Cafe Hawelka on Dorotheergasse. In New York nobody looked too carefully, and few people’s eyes were trained to the old European subtleties. The unstarched collar of the sweat-stained white shirt from Banana Republic, the dusty brown sandals, the straggly badgerish beard (neither carefully clipped nor delicately pomaded) struck no false notes here. Even his name, had he ever been obliged to give it, sounded vaguely Mitteleuropkische. What a place, he thought. A city of half-truths and echoes that somehow dominates the earth. And its eyes, emerald green, staring into your heart.

Approaching the counter with its refrigerated display of the great cakes of Austria, he passed over the excellent-looking Sacher gateau and asked, instead, for a piece of Linzertorte, receiving in response a look of perfect Hispanic incomprehension, which obliged him exasperatedly to point. Then finally he was able to sip and read.

The morning papers were full of the publication of the report on the human genome. They were calling it the best version yet of the “bright book of life,” a phrase variously used to describe the Bible and the Novel; even though this new brightness was not a book at all but an electronic message posted on the Internet, a code written in four amino acids, and Professor Solanka wasn’t good with codes, had never even managed to learn elementary pig Latin, let alone semaphore or the now defunct Morse, apart from what everybody knew. Dit dit dit dab dah dab dit dit dit. Help. Or, in Iglatinpay, elp-hay. Everyone was speculating about the miracles that would follow the genome triumph, for example the extra limbs we could decide to grow for ourselves to solve the problem of how at a buffet dinner to hold a plate and a wineglass and eat at the same time; but to Malik the only two certainties were, first, that whatever discoveries were made would come too late to be of any use to him and, second, that this book—which changed everything, which transformed the philosophical nature of our being, which contained a quantitative change in our self-knowledge so immense as to be a qualitative change as well—was one he would never be able to read.

While human beings had been excluded from this degree of understanding, they could console themselves that they were all in the same bog of ignorance together. Now that Solanka knew that someone some where knew what he would never know, and was additionally quite aware that what was known was vitally important to know, he felt the dull irritation, the slow anger, of the fool. He felt like a drone, or a worker ant. He felt like one of the shuffling thousands in the old movies of Chaplin and Fritz Lang, the faceless ones doomed to break their bodies on society’s wheel while knowledge exercised power over them from on high. The new age had new emperors and he would be their slave.

“Sir. Sir” A young woman was standing over him, uncomfortably close, wearing a pencil-thin knee-length navy blue skirt and a smart white blouse. Her fair hair was pulled back severely. “I’m going to ask you to leave, sir.” The Hispanic counter staff were tensed, ready to intervene. Professor Solanka was truly perplexed: “What appears to be the trouble, Miss?”

“What is the trouble, sir, not what ‘appears,’ is that you have been using bad language, obscene terms, and so loudly. Speaking the unspeakable, I should say. You have been shouting it out. And now amazingly you ask what is the trouble. Sir, you are the trouble. You will go now, please.” At last, he thought even as he was receiving this verbal bum’s rush, a moment of genuineness. One Austrian is here, at least. He rose, pulled his lumpy coat around him, and left, tipping his hat, though not her. There was no explanation for the woman’s extraordinary speech. When he was still sleeping with Eleanor, she would accuse him of snoring. He would be halfway between wakefulness and sleep and she would push at him and say, Turn on your side. But he was conscious, he wanted to say, he could hear her speak, and therefore, had he been making any sort of noise himself, he would have heard that, too. After a while she gave up persecuting him and he slept soundly. Until the time when once again he didn’t. No, not that again, not right now. Right now when, once again, he was conscious, and all manner of noise was in his ears.

As he approached his apartment he saw a workman hanging in a cradle outside his window, doing repairs to the exterior of the building and, in loud, rolling Punjabi, shouting instructions and dirty jokes to his partner smoking a beedi on the sidewalk below. Malik Solanka at once telephoned his landlords the Jays, wealthy organic farmers who spent summers upstate with their fruits and vegetables, and made emphatic complaints. This brutish din was intolerable. The lease stated clearly that the work would be not only external but quiet. Furthermore, the toilet didn’t work properly; small pieces of fecal matter bobbed back up after he flushed. In the mood he was in, this caused him a degree of distress disproportionate to the problem, and he spoke vehemently of his feelings to Mr. Simon Jay, the gentle, bemused owner of the apartment, who had lived there happily for thirty years with his wife, Ada, had raised his children in these rooms, toilet-trained them on these very water closets, and had found every day of his occupancy a simple and unqualified delight. Solanka wasn’t interested. A second flushing invariably dealt with the trouble, he conceded, but that was not acceptable. A plumber must come, and soon.

But the plumber, like the Punjabi construction workers, was a talker, an octogenarian named Joseph Schlink. Erect, wiry, with Albert Einstein white hair and Bugs Bunny front teeth, Joseph came through the door impelled by a form of defensive pridefulness to get his retaliation in first. “Don’t tell me, eh?, I’m too old you’re maybe thinking, or maybe not, mind reading I make no claim on, but a better plumber in the tristate area you von’t find, also fit like a fiddle or I’m no Schlink.” The thick, unimproved accent of the transplanted German Jew. “My name amuses you? So laugh. The chentleman, Mr. Simon, calls me Kitchen Schlink, to his Mrs. Ada I’m also Bathroom Schlink, let zem call me Schlink the Bismarck, it von’t bother me, it’s a free country, but in my business I haff no use for humor. In Latin, humor is a dampness from the eye. This is to quote Heinrich Boll, Nobel Prize nineteen hundred seventy-two. In his line of vork he alleges it’s helpful, but in my job it leads to mistakes. No damp eyes on me, eh?, and no chokes in my tool bag. Chust I like to do the vork prompt, receive payment also prompt, you follow me here. Like the sbvartzer says in the movie, show me the money. After a war spent plugging leaks on a Nazi U-boat, you think I can’t fix up your little doofus here?”

An educated plumber with a tale to tell, Solanka realized with a sinking feeling. (He refused the tempting “Schlinking.”) This when he was almost too tired to remain upright. The city was teaching him a lesson. There was to be no escape from intrusion, from noise. He had crossed the ocean to separate his life from life. He had come in search of silence and found a loudness greater than the one he left behind. The noise was inside him now. He was afraid to go into the room where the dolls were. Maybe they would begin to speak to him, too. Maybe they would come to life and chatter and gossip and twitter until he had to shut them up once and for all, until he was obliged by the everywhereness of life, by its bloody-minded refusal to back off, by the sheer goddamn unbearable head-bursting volume of the third millennium, to rip off their fucking heads.

Breathe. He did a slow circular breathing exercise. Very well. He would accept the plumber’s garrulity as a penance. Dealing with it would be an exercise in humility and self-control. This was a Jewish plumber who had escaped the death camps by going underwater. His skills as a plumber meant the crew had protected him, they hung on to him until the day of their surrender, when he walked free and came to America, leaving behind, or, to put it another way, bringing along his ghosts.

Schlink had told the story a thousand times before, a thousand thousand. Out it came in its set phrases and cadences. “You can chust imagine it. A plumber in a submarine is already a little comic, but on top of that you haff the irony, the psychologiscbe complexity. I don’t haff to spell it out. But I stand before you. I haff liffed my life. I haff kept, eh?, my appointment.”

A novelistic life, Solanka was forced to concede. Filmic, too. A life that could be a successful mid-budget feature film. Dustin Hoffman maybe as the plumber, and as the U-boat captain, who? Klaus Maria Brandauer, Rutger Hauer. But probably both parts would go to younger actors whose names Malik didn’t know. Even this was fading with the years, the movie knowledge in which he had always taken such pride. “You should write this down and register it,” he told Schlink, speaking too loudly. “It’s as they say high-concept. U-571 meets Schindler’s List. Maybe a double-edged comedy like Benigni’s. No, tougher than Benigni’s. Call it jewboat.” Schlink stiffened; and, before giving his full, injured attention to the toilet, turned on Solanka his mournful, disgusted gaze. “No humor,” he said. “As I haff already told you. I am sorry to say that you are a disrespectful man.”

And in the kitchen downstairs, the Polish cleaner Wislawa had arrived. She came with the sublet, refused to do the ironing, left cobwebs untouched in corners, and after she left you could make a line in the dust on the mantelpiece. On the plus side she had a pleasant temperament and a big, gummy smile. However, if you gave her half a chance, or even if you didn’t, she too would plunge into narrative. The dangerous, unsuppressable power of the tale. Wislawa, a devout Catholic, had had her faith profoundly shaken by an ostensibly true story told by her husband who got it from his uncle who got it from a trusted friend who knew the person concerned, a certain Ryszard, who was for many years the personal driver of the pope, this of course before he was elected to the Holy See. When it was time for that election, Ryszard the chauffeur drove the future pope all the way across Europe, a Europe standing on the very hinge of history, on the cusp of great changes. Ah, the comradeship of the two men, the simple human pleasures and annoyances of such a long journey! And then they arrived in the Holy City, the man of the cloth was walled up with his peers and the driver waited. At last the white smoke was seen, the cry of habemus papam was raised, and then there was a cardinal all in red, descending an enormous, wide flight of yellow stone steps slowly, and crabwise, like a character in a Fellini movie, and right at the bottom of the steps waited the smoky little car and its excited driver. The cardinal came mopping his brow and puffing up to the driver’s window, which Ryszard had wound down in anticipation of the news. And so the cardinal was able to deliver the personal message of the new, the Polish pope:

“You’re fired.”

Solanka, not a Catholic, not a believer, not much interested in the story even if true, not remotely convinced that it was true, not anxious to referee the cleaner’s wrestling match with the imp of doubt who presently had her immortal soul in a stranglehold, would have preferred not to speak to Wislawa at all, would have wished her to glide around the apartment rendering it spotless and habitable, leaving the laundry done, pressed and folded. But in spite of the expenditure of over eight thousand dollars a month on the sublet, cleaner included, fate had dealt him a pretty much unplayable hand. On the topic of Wislawa’s imperiled reservation in heaven, he most earnestly did not wish to comment; yet she returned to the theme constantly. “How to kiss the ring of a Holy Father like that one, he is of my own people, but 0 God, to send a cardinal, and just like that, so lightly, to give the sack. And if not the Holy Father, then how his priests, and if not the priests, then how confession and absolution, and here are opening below my feets the iron gates of Hell.”

Professor Solanka, his fuse shortening, grew daily more tempted to say something unkind. Paradise, he considered telling Wislawa, was a place to which only the coolest and highest in New York possessed the secret number. As a gesture to the democratic spirit a few ordinary mortals were allowed in, too; they would arrive wearing properly reverential expressions, the expressions of those who know that they have truly, just this once, lucked out. The wide-eyed thrilledness of this bridge-and-tunnel mob would add to the jaded satisfaction of the in-crowd, and of course of the Proprietor himself. It was extremely improbable, however, the laws of supply and demand being what they were, that Wislawa would turn out to be one of the fortunate few in the public seats, the sun-kissed bleachers of eternity.

This and much else Solanka restrained himself from saying. Instead he pointed out cobwebs and dust, to be answered only by that gummy smile and a gesture of Krakovian incomprehension. “I work for Mrs. Jay long time.” This answer dealt, in Wislawa’s view, with all complaints. After the second week Solanka gave up asking, wiped down the mantels himself, got rid of the cobwebs, and took his shirts to the good Chinese laundry just around the corner on Columbus. But her soul, her nonexistent soul, continued intermittently to insist on his pastoral, his uncaring care.

Solanka’s head began to spin lightly. Sleep-deprived, wild of thought, he headed for his bedroom. Behind him through the thick, humid air he could hear his dolls, alive now and jabbering behind their closed door, each loudly telling the other his or her “back-story” the tale of how she or he came to be. The imaginary tale, which he, Solanka, had made up for each of them. If a doll had no back-story, its market value was low. And as with dolls so with human beings. This was what we brought with us on our journey across oceans, beyond frontiers, through life: our little storehouse of anecdote and what-happened-next, our private once-upon-a-time. We were our stories, and when we died, if we were very lucky, our immortality would be in another such tale.

This was the great truth against which Malik Solanka had set his face. It was precisely his back-story that he wanted to destroy. Never mind where he came from or who, when little Malik could barely walk, had deserted his mother and so given him permission, years later, to do the same. To the devil with stepfathers and pushes on the top of a young boy’s head and dressing up and weak mothers and guilty Desdemonas and the whole useless baggage of blood and tribe. He had come to America as so many before him to receive the benison of being Ellis Islanded, of starting over. Give me a name, America, make of me a Buzz or Chip or Spike. Bathe me in amnesia and clothe me in your powerful unknowing. Enlist me in your J. Crew and hand me my mouse ears! No longer a historian but a man without histories let me be. I’ll rip my lying mother tongue out of my throat and speak your broken English instead. Scan me, digitize me, beam me up. If the past is the sick old Earth, then, America, be my flying saucer. Fly me to the rim of space. The moon’s not far enough.

But still through the ill-fitting bedroom window the stories came pouring in. What would Saul and Gayfryd—“she became the Stanley Cup of trophy wives when trophy wives were as common as Porsches”—do now that they were down to their last $40 or $50 million?… And hurray, Muffie Potter Ashton’s pregnant!… And wasn’t that Paloma Huffington de Woody getting friendly with S. J. “Yitzhak” Perelman on Gibson’s Beach, Sagaponack?… And did you hear about Griffin and his great big beautiful Dahl?… What, Nina’s planning to launch a perfume? But, my dear, she’s so over, she’s starting to smell like roadkill… And Meg and Dennis, just moved to Splitsville, are squabbling over who gets not just the CD collection but the guru… Which big-name Hollywood actress has been whispering that a new young star’s elevation has Sapphic origins involving a major studio boss?… And have you read Karen’s latest, Thin Thighs for Life?… And Lotus, coolest of niteries, nixed O. J. Simpson’s birthday bash! Only in America, kids, only in America!

With his hands over his ears, and still wearing his ruined linen suit, Professor Solanka slept.

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