The news of Solanka’s split from Eleanor had sent shock waves through their circle. Each marriage that breaks interrogates those that continue to hold. Malik Solanka was conscious of having initiated a chain reaction of spoken and unspoken questions at breakfast tables across the city, and in bedrooms, and in other cities too: Are we still good? Okay, how good? Are there things you’re not telling me? Am I going to wake up one day and you’ll say something that makes me realize I’ve been sharing my bed with a stranger? How will tomorrow rewrite yesterday, how will next week unmake the past five, ten, fifteen years? Are you bored? Is it my fault? Are you weaker than I thought? Is it him? Is it her? Is it the sex? The children? Do you want to fix it? Is there anything to fix? Do you love me? Do you still love me? Do I still, oh Jesus Jesus, love you?
These agonies, for which his friends inevitably held him responsible to some unspecified degree, returned to him as echoes. In spite of his emphatic embargo, Eleanor was handing out his Manhattan phone number to anyone who wanted it. Men, more than women, seemed moved to call up and reprove. Morgen Franz, the post-hippie Buddhist publisher whose telephone Eleanor had answered all those years ago, was first in line. Morgen was Californian and had taken refuge from that fact in Bloomsbury but never shaken off his slow Haight-Ashbury drawl. “I’m not happy about this, man,” he’d called Malik to reveal, his vowels even more elongated than usual to emphasize his pain. “And what’s more, I don’t know anyone who is. I don’t know why you did this, man, and because you’re neither a dope nor a shit, I’m sure you’ll have your reasons, I’m sure you will, you know?, and they’ll be good reasons, too, man, I have no doubt of it, I mean what can I tell you, I love you, you know?, I love you both, but right now I have to say I feel a lot of anger toward you.” Solanka could visualize his friend’s reddened, short-bearded face, his small deep-set eyes blinking fiercely for emphasis. Franz was legendarily laid-back—“nobody’s cooler than the Morg,” that was his catchphrase—so this heated climax came as a jolt. Solanka, however, stayed cold, and allowed himself to express his own feelings truthfully and irrevocably.
“Six, seven, eight years ago,” he said, “Lin used to call Eleanor in tears because you refused to have a child with her, and you know what?, you had your reasons, you had your deep disenchantment with the human race to deal with every day, and on children, as on Philadelphia, you took the Fields position. And, Morgen, I ‘felt a lot of anger toward you’ in those days myself. I saw Lin settling for cats instead of babies and I didn’t like it and guess what? I never called you to scold you or to ask what was the relevant Buddhist teaching on the subject, because I decided it was none of my damn business what went on between you and your wife. That it was your private affair, given that you weren’t actually beating her up, or given, anyway, that it was merely her spirit you were breaking, not her body. So do me a favor and bugger off. This is not your story. It’s mine.” And there it went, their old friendship, eight or was it nine Christmas Days spent in turn at each other’s homes, the Trivial Pursuit, the charades, the love. Lin Franz called him the next morning to tell him that what he had said was unforgivable. “Please know,” she added, in her whisper-soft, overly formal Vietnamese-American English, “that your desertion of Eleanor has only served to bring Morgen and I even closer together. And Eleanor is a strong woman, and will pick up the reins of her life soon, when she has mourned. We will all go on without you, Malik, and you will be the poorer for having excluded us from your life. I am sorry for you.”
A knife held over the sleeping figures of your wife and child cannot be mentioned to anyone, much less explained. Such a knife represents a crime far worse than the substitution of a long-haired feline for a mewl ing babe. And Solanka had no answer to the hows and whys of this appalling, enigmatic event.
No! In despair, to
He had conceived, in that instant, an almost religious belief in the power of flight. Flight would save others from him, and him from himself He would go where he was not known and wash himself in that unknowing. A memory from forbidden Bombay peremptorily insisted on his attention: the memory of the day in 1955 when Mr. Venkat—the big-deal banker whose son Chandra was the ten-year-old Malik’s best friend—became a sanyasi on his sixtieth birthday and abandoned his family forever, wearing no more than a Gandhian loincloth, with a long wooden staff in one hand and a begging bowl in the other. Malik had always liked Mr. Venkat, who would tease him by asking him to pronounce, very quickly, his full, polysyllabically tumbling South Indian name: Balasubramanyam Venkataraghavan. “Come on, boy, faster,” he’d coax Malik as his childish tongue stumbled over the syllables. “Don’t you wish you had a name as magnificent as this?”
Malik Solanka lived in a second-floor apartment in a building called Noor Ville on Methwold’s Estate off Warden Road. The Venkats occupied the other apartment on that floor, and gave every indication of being a happy family: one, in fact, that Malik envied every day of his life. Now both apartment doors stood open, and children crowded wide-eyed and grave around stricken adults as Mr. Venkat took his leave of his old life forever. From the depths of the Venkats’ apartment came the noise of a crackly seventy-eight: a song by the Ink Spots, Mr. Venkat’s favorite group. The spectacle of Mrs. Venkat crying her eyes out on his mother’s shoulder hit little Malik Solanka hard. As the banker turned to go, Malik suddenly called out to him. “Balasubramanyam Venkataraghavan!” And then, saying it faster and louder, until he was simultaneously gabbling and screaming: “Balasubramanyamvenkataraghavan balasubramanyamvenkataraghavan BALASUBRAMANYAMVENKATARAGHAVAN!”
The banker paused gravely. He was a small, bony man, kind-faced, bright-eyed. “That is very well said, and the speed is impressive too,” he commented. “And because you have repeated it five times without a mistake, I will answer five questions, if you wish to ask them.”
Where are you going? “I am going in search of knowledge and if possible of peace.” Why aren’t you wearing your office suit? “Because I have given up my employment.” Why is Mrs. Venkat crying? “That is a question for her.” When are you coming back? “This step, Malik, is once and for all.” What about Chandra? “He will understand one day.” Don’t you care about us anymore? “That is the sixth question. Over the limit. Be a good child now. Be a good friend to your friend.” Malik Solanka remembered his mother trying, after Mr. Venkat went away down the hill, to explain the philosophy of the
When a man without faith mimicked the choices of the faithful, the result was likely to be both vulgar and inept. Professor Malik Solanka donned no loincloth, picked up no begging bowl. Instead of surrendering himself to the fortune of the street and the charity of strangers, he flew business class to JFK, checked briefly into the Lowell, called a real estate broker, and speedily lucked out, finding himself this commodious West Side sublet. Instead of heading for Manaus, Alice Springs, or Vladivostok, he had landed himself in a city in which he was not completely unknown, which was not completely unknown to him, in which he could speak the language and find his way around and understand, up to a point, the customs of the natives. He had acted without thinking, had been strapped into his airline seat before he allowed himself to reflect; then he’d simply accepted the imperfect choice his reflexes had made, agreed to proceed down the unlikely road onto which his feet, without prompting, had turned. A
He awoke in his bed-fully dressed, again, with strong drink on his breath-without knowing how or when he’d reached it. With consciousness came fear of himself. Another night unaccounted for. Another blank snowstorm in the videotape. But as before there was no blood on his hands or clothes, no weapon on his person, not so much as a concrete lump. He lurched upright, grabbed the zapper and found the tail end of the local news on TV. Nothing about a Concrete Killer or a Panama Hat Man or a privileged beauty done to death. No breaking of a living doll. He fell back across the bed, breathing hard and fast. Then, kicking off his street shoes, he pulled the covers over his aching head.
He recognized this funk. Long ago in a Cambridge hostel he had been unable to rise and face his new undergraduate existence. Now as then, panic and demons rushed in at him from every side. He was vulnerable to demons. He heard their bat-wings flapping by his ears, felt their goblin fingers twining around his ankles to pull him down to that hell in which he didn’t believe but which kept cropping up in his language, in his emotions, in the part of him that was not his to control. That growing part of him that was running wild, out of his feeble hands… where was Krysztof Waterford-Wajda when he needed him? Come on, Dubdub, knock at the door and pull me away from the edge of the yawning Pit.—But Dubdub didn’t return from beyond Heaven’s door to knock.
This wasn’t it, Solanka told himself feverishly. This wasn’t the story that had brought him all this way! Not this Jekyll and Hyde melodrama, a saga of a lower order entirely. There was no Gothic strain in the architecture of his life, no mad scientist’s laboratory, no bubbling retorts, no gulped potion of demonic metamorphosis. Yet the fear, the funk, would not leave him. He drew the covers down more tightly over his head. He could smell the street on his clothes. There was no evidence linking him to any crime. Nor was he under investigation for anything at all. How many men, in an average Manhattan summer, wore Panama hats? Hundreds, at least? Why, then, was he tormenting himself so? Because if the knife was possible, so was this. And then the circumstances: three failures of nocturnal memory, three dead women. This was the conjunction that required his silence as absolutely as the knife in the dark but which he could not hide from himself. Also that stream of obscenities unknowingly spoken in Cafe Mozart. Not enough for any court to convict, but he was his own judge, and the jury was out.
Blearily, he dialed a number and waited through the interminable mechanized-voice preliminaries to receive his voice mail. You
He made himself get up, stripped and showered. He was brewing coffee in the kitchen when he realized that the apartment was empty. Yet it was one of Wislawa’s days. Why wasn’t she here? Solanka dialed her number. “Yes?” It was her voice all right. “Wislawa?” he demanded. “Professor Solanka. Aren’t you supposed to be working today?” There was a long pause. “Professor?” said Wislawa’s voice, sounding timid and small. “You do not remember?” He felt his body temperature dropping rapidly. “What? Remember what?” Now Wislawa’s voice grew tearful. “Professor, you fire me. You fire me, for what? For nothing. Of course you remember. And the words. Such words from an educated man, I never heard. After this, it’s over for me. Even now that you call to ask me, I cannot return.” Somebody spoke behind her, another woman’s voice, and Wislawa rallied, to add with considerable determination, “However, cost of my work is included in your contract. Since you fire me unjustly I will continue to receive this. I have spoken to landlord and they are agree. I think they will speak also to you. You know, I work for Mrs. Jay long time.” Malik Solanka put the receiver down without another word.
The city was being sprayed with the pesticide Anvil. Several birds, mostly from the Staten Island wetlands, had died of West Nile virus, and the mayor was taking no chances. Everyone was on high mosquito alert. Stay indoors at dusk! Wear long sleeves! During spraying, close all windows and turn all air-conditioning units off! Such interventionist radicalism, although not a single human being had contracted the illness since the beginning of the new millennium. (Later, a few cases were reported; but no deaths.) The timorousness of Americans in the face of the unknown, their overcompensation, had always made Europeans laugh. “A car backfires in Paris,” Eleanor Solanka—even Eleanor, the least bitchy of human beings—liked to say, “and the next day a million Americans cancel their holidays.”
Solanka had forgotten about the spraying, had walked for hours through the falling invisible poison. For a moment he considered blaming the pesticide for his memory loss. Asthmatics were having convulsions, lobsters were said to be dying by the thousand, environmentalists were squawking; why shouldn’t he? But his natural fairness prevented him from going down this route. The source of his problems was likely to be of existential rather than chemical origin.
He had come to New York as the Land Surveyor came to the Castle: in ambivalence, in extremis, and in unrealistic hope. He had found his billet, a more comfortable one than the poor Surveyor’s, and ever since then had been roaming the streets, looking for a way in, telling himself that the great World-City could heal him, a city child, if he could only find the gateway to its magic, invisible, hybrid heart. This mystical proposition had clearly altered the continuum around him. Things appeared to proceed by logic, according to the laws of psychological verisimilitude and the deep inner coherences of metropolitan life, but in fact all was mystery. But perhaps his was not the only identity to be coming apart at the seams. Behind the fmade of this age of gold, this time of plenty, the contradictions and impoverishment of the Western human individual, or let’s say the human self in America, were deepening and widening. Perhaps that wider disintegration was also to be made visible in this city of fiery, jeweled garments and secret ash, in this time of public hedonism and private fear.
A change of direction was required. The story you finished was perhaps never the one you began. Yes! He would take charge of his life anew, binding his breaking selves together. Those changes in himself that he sought, he himself would initiate and make them. No more of this miasmic, absent drift. How had he ever persuaded himself that this money-mad burg would rescue him all by itself, this Gotham in which Jokers and Penguins were running riot with no Batman (or even Robin) to frustrate their schemes, this Metropolis built of Kryptonite in which no Superman dared set foot, where wealth was mistaken for riches and the joy of possession for happiness, where people lived such polished lives that the great rough truths of raw existence had been rubbed and buffed away, and in which human souls had wandered so separately for so long that they barely remembered how to touch; this city whose fabled electricity powered the electric fences that were being erected between men and men, and men and women, too? Rome did not fall because her armies weakened but because Romans forgot what being a Roman meant. Might this new Rome actually be more provincial than its provinces; might these new Romans have forgotten what and how to value, or had they never known? Were all empires so undeserving, or was this one particularly crass? Was nobody in all this bustling endeavor and material plenitude engaged, any longer, on the deep quarry-work of the mind and heart? O Dream-America, was civilization’s quest to end in obesity and trivia, at Roy Rogers and Planet Hollywood, in USA Today and on E!; or in million-dollar-game-show greed or fly-on-the-wall voyeurism; or in the eternal confessional booth of Ricki and Oprah and Jerry, whose guests murdered each other after the show; or in a spurt of gross-out dumb-and-dumber comedies designed for young people who sat in darkness howling their ignorance at the silver screen; or even at the unattainable tables of Jean-Georges Uongerichten and Alain Ducasse? What of the search for the hidden keys that unlock the doors of exaltation? Who demolished the City on the Hill and put in its place a row of electric chairs, those dealers in death’s democracy, where everyone, the innocent, the mentally deficient, the guilty, could come to die side by side? Who paved Paradise and put up a parking lot? Who settled for George W. Gush’s boredom and Al Bore’s gush? Who let Charlton Heston out of his cage and then asked why children were getting shot? What, America, of the Grail? O ye Yankee Galahads, ye Hoosier Lancelots, O Parsifals of the stockyards, what of the Table Round? He felt a flood bursting in him and did not hold it back. Yes, it had seduced him, America; yes, its brilliance aroused him, and its vast potency too, and he was compromised by this seduction. What he opposed in it he must also attack in himself. It made him want what it promised and eternally withheld. Everyone was an American now, or at least Americanized: Indians, Iranians, Uzbeks, Japanese, Lilliputians, all. America was the world’s playing field, its rule book, umpire, and ball. Even anti-Americanism was Americanism in disguise, conceding, as it did, that America was the only game in town and the matter of America the only business at hand; and so, like everyone, Malik Solanka now walked its high corridors cap in hand, a supplicant at its feast; but that did not mean he could not look it in the eye. Arthur had fallen, Excalibur was lost, and dark Mordred was king. Beside him on the throne of Camelot sat the queen, his sister, the witch Morgan le Fay.
Professor Malik Solanka prided himself on being a practical man. Deft with his hands, he could thread a needle, mend his own clothes, iron a dress shirt. For a time, when he first began to make his philosophy dolls, he had apprenticed himself to a Cambridge tailor and learned to cut the clothes his pint-sized thinkers would wear; also the street-fashion knockoffs he created for Little Brain. Wislawa or no, he knew how to keep his living quarters clean. Henceforth he would apply the same principles of good housekeeping to his inner life as well.
He set off along Seventieth Street with the Chinese cleaners’ purple laundry bag slung over his right shoulder. Turning onto Columbus, he overheard the following soliloquy. “You remember my ex-wife, Erin. Tess’s mom. Yeah, the actress; these days she does mainly commercials. So guess what? We’re seeing each other again. Pretty weird, huh. After two years of thinking she was the enemy, and five more of better but still tricky relations! I started inviting her to come over sometimes with Tess. Tess likes her mom to be around, to tell the truth. And then one night. Yeah, it was one of those Then One Night things. There was a point at which I went over and sat down next to her on the settee instead of staying in my usual chair way over across the other side of the room. You know, my desire for her never went away, it just got buried under a heap of other stuff, a whole heap of anger, to tell the truth, and so now it all just poured out, boom! An ocean of it. To tell the truth the seven years had backed up a whole load of it, desire, that is, and maybe the anger made it even more intense, so it was amazingly bigger than it used to be. But so here’s the thing. I walk over to the settee and what happens, happens, and afterwards she says, ‘You know, when you came over to me, I didn’t know if you were going to hit me or kiss me.’ I guess I didn’t know either until I reached the settee. To tell the truth.”
All this spoken into the air at high volume by a gangling, frizz-haired Art Garfunkel-y man in his forties, out walking a brindled dog. It was a moment before Solanka saw the cell-phone headset through the halo of ginger hair. These days we all come across like rummies or crackpots, Solanka thought, confiding our secrets to the wind as we stroll along. Here was a striking example of the disintegrated contemporary reality that was preoccupying him. Dog-walking Art, existing for the moment only in the Telephone Continuum-lingering in the sound of silence-was quite unaware that in the alternative, or Seventieth Street Continuum, he was revealing his deepest intimacies to strangers. This about New York Professor Solanka liked a lot—this sense of being crowded out by other people’s stories, of walking like a phantom through a city that was in the middle of a story which didn’t need him as a character. And the man’s ambivalence to his wife, Solanka thought: for wife, read America. And maybe I’m still walking over to the settee.
The day’s newspapers brought unexpected comfort. He must have turned on the TV too late to hear the day’s main developments in the Sky-Ren-Bindy murder investigation. Now with lifting heart he read that the team of detectives—three precincts had joined forces on this inquiry—had hauled the three beaux in for questioning. They had later been released, and no charges had been filed for the moment, but the detectives’ demeanor had been grave and the young men had been warned not to head off in a hurry for any Riviera yachts or Southeast Asian beaches. Unnamed sources close to the investigation said that the “Mr. Panama Hat” theory was being heavily discounted, which clearly implied that the suspect boyfriends were thought to have cooked up the mysterious stalker between them. Stash, Horse, and Club looked, in the photos, like three very scared young men. Press comment, wasting no time, instantly linked the unsolved triple murder to the Nicole Brown
Simpson killing and the death of little JonBenet Ramsey. “In such cases,” one editorial concluded, “it’s wisest to keep the search pretty close to home.”
“Can I talk to you?” When he got back to the apartment, giddy with relief, Mila was waiting for him on the stoop, sans entourage, but holding in her arms a half-life size Little Brain doll. The transformation in her manner was startling. Gone was the street-goddess swagger, the queen-of-the-world attitude. This was a shy, gawky young woman with stars in her green eyes. “What you said at the movies. Are you, it has to be you, right? You’re
He felt the old anger surge in him as she spoke, the huge, unassuaged Little Brain anger that had remained unexpressed, inexpressible, all these years. This was the anger that had led directly to the episode of the knife… He made an immense effort and forced it down. This was the first day of his new phase. Today there would be no red mist, no obscene tirade, no fury-induced memory blackout. Today he would face the demon and wrestle it to the mat. Breathe, he told himself. Breathe.
Mila was looking worried. “Professor? Are you okay?” He nodded rapidly, yes, yes. And briefly said: “Come inside, please. I want to tell you a story.”