THE AFTERNOON BEFORE I LEFT LONDON FOR NEW YORK…
AS A TEENAGER I OFTEN BICYCLED INTO THE CENTER…
I’M STILL WORKING AT M——. IT WAS SURPRISINGLY…
A Note About the Author
Also by Joseph O’Neill
I dream’d in a dream, I saw a city invincible to the attacks of the whole of the rest of theearth;
I dream’d that was the new City of Friends
THE AFTERNOON BEFORE I LEFT LONDON FOR NEW YORK—Rachel had flown out six weeks previously—Iwas in my cubicle at work, boxing up my possessions, when a senior vice-president at the bank,an Englishman in his fifties, came to wish me well. I was surprised; he worked in another part
of the building and in another department, and we were known to each other only by sight.Nevertheless, he asked me in detail about where I intended to live (“Watts? Which block onWatts?”) and reminisced for several minutes about his loft on Wooster Street and his outingsto the “original” Dean & DeLuca. He was doing nothing to hide his envy.
“We won’t be gone for very long,” I said, playing down my good fortune. That was, in fact,the plan, conceived by my wife: to drop in on New York City for a year or three and then comeback.
“You say that now,” he said. “But New York’s a very hard place to leave. And once you doleave…” The S.V.P., smiling, said, “I still miss it, and I left twelve years ago.”
It was my turn to smile—in part out of embarrassment, because he’d spoken with an Americanopenness. “Well, we’ll see,” I said.
“Yes,” he said. “You will.”
His sureness irritated me, though principally he was pitiable—like one of those Petersburgiansof yesteryear whose duties have washed him up on the wrong side of the Urals.
But it turns out he was right, in a way. Now that I, too, have left that city, I find it hardto rid myself of the feeling that life carries a taint of aftermath. This last-mentioned word,somebody once told me, refers literally to a second mowing of grass in the same season. Youmight say, if you’re the type prone to general observations, that New York City insists onmemory’s repetitive mower—on the sort of purposeful postmortem that has the effect, so one istold and forlornly hopes, of cutting the grassy past to manageable proportions. For it keepsgrowing back, of course. None of this means that I wish I were back there now; and naturallyI’d like to believe that my own retrospection is in some way more important than the oldS.V.P.’s, which, when I was exposed to it, seemed to amount to not much more than a cheaplonging. But there’s no such thing as a cheap longing, I’m tempted to conclude these days,not even if you’re sobbing over a cracked fingernail. Who knows what happened to that fellowover there? Who knows what lay behind his story about shopping for balsamic vinegar? He made itsound like an elixir, the poor bastard.
At any rate, for the first two years or so of my return to England, I did my best to look awayfrom New York—where, after all, I’d been unhappy for the first time in my life. I didn’t goback there in person, and I didn’t wonder very often about what had become of a man namedChuck Ramkissoon, who’d been a friend during my final East Coast summer and had since, in theway of these things, become a transitory figure. Then, one evening in the spring of this year,2006, Rachel and I are at home, in Highbury. She is absorbed by a story in the newspaper. Ihave already read it. It concerns the emergence of a group of tribespeople from the Amazonforest in Colombia. They are reportedly tired of the hard jungle life, although it’s notedthey still like nothing better than to eat monkey, grilled and then boiled. A disturbingphotograph of a boy gnawing at a blackened little skull illustrates this fact. The tribespeoplehave no idea of the existence of a host country named Colombia, and no idea, more hazardously,of diseases like the common cold or influenza, against which they have no natural defenses.
“Hello,” Rachel says, “your tribe has come to light.”
New York Times reporter asks for Mr. vanI’m still smiling when I answer the ringing phone. A
The reporter says, “This is about Kham, ah, Khamraj Ramkissoon…?”
“Chuck,” I say, sitting down at the kitchen table. “It’s Chuck Ramkissoon.”
She tells me that Chuck’s “remains” have been found in the Gowanus Canal. There werehandcuffs around his wrists and evidently he was the victim of a murder.
I don’t say anything. It seems to me this woman has told an obvious lie and that if I thinkabout it long enough a rebuttal will come to me.
Her voice says, “Did you know him well?” When I don’t answer, she says, “It says somewhereyou were his business partner.”
“That’s not accurate,” I say.
“But you were in business together, right? That’s what my note says.”
“No,” I say. “You’ve been misinformed. He was just a friend.”
She says, “Oh—OK.” There is a tapping of a keyboard and a hiatus.
“So—is there anything you can tell me about his milieu?”
“His milieu?” I say, startled into correcting her mooing pronunciation.
“Well, you know—who he hung out with, what kind of trouble he might have gotten himself into,any shady characters…” She adds with a faint laugh, “It is kind of unusual, what happened.”
I realize that I’m upset, even angry.
“Yes,” I finally say. “You have quite a story on your hands.”
The next day a small piece runs in the Metro section. It has been established that ChuckRamkissoon’s body lay in the water by the Home Depot building for over two years, among crabsand car tires and shopping carts, until a so-called urban diver made a “macabre discovery”while filming a school of striped bass. Over the next week there is a trickle of follow-upitems, none of them informative. But apparently it is interesting to readers, and reassuring tocertain traditionalists, that the Gowanus Canal can still turn up a murder victim. There’sdeath in the old girl yet, as one commentator wittily puts it.
The night we receive the news, Rachel, in bed next to me, asks, “So who’s this man?” When Idon’t immediately answer, she puts down her book.
“Oh,” I say, “I’m sure I’ve told you about him. A cricket guy I used to know. A guy fromBrooklyn.”
She repeats after me, “Chuck Ramkissoon?”
Her voice contains a detached note I don’t like. I roll away onto one shoulder and close myeyes. “Yes,” I say. “Chuck Ramkissoon.”