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Netherland

By Jacob Lane,2014-11-04 20:44
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In a New York City made phantasmagorical by the events of 9/11, Hans--a banker originally from the Netherlands--finds himself marooned among the strange occupants of the Chelsea Hotel after his English wife and son return to London. Alone and untethered, feeling lost in the country he had come to regard as home, Hans stumbles upon the vibrant New York subculture of cricket, where he revisits his lost childhood and, thanks to a friendship with a charismatic and charming Trinidadian named Chuck Ramkissoon, begins to reconnect with his life and his adopted country. Ramkissoon, a Gatsby-like figure who is part idealist and part operator, introduces Hans to an "other" New York populated by immigrants and strivers of every race and nationality. Hans is alternately seduced and instructed by Chuck Published by Pantheon Books on 2008/09/15

Contents

    Title Page

    Dedication

    Epigraph

    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…

    Acknowledgments

    A Note About the Author

    Also by Joseph O’Neill

    Copyright

    To Sally

    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

    —WHITMAN

    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

    den Broek.

    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.”

    ?????????

    C huck and I met for the first time in August 2002. I was playing cricket at Randolph WalkerPark, in Staten Island, and Chuck was present as one of the two independent umpires who gavetheir services in return for a fifty-dollar honorarium. The day was thick as a jelly, with ahot, glassy atmosphere and no wind, not even a breeze from the Kill of Kull, which flows lessthan two hundred yards from Walker Park and separates Staten Island from New Jersey. Far away,in the south, was the mumbling of thunder. It was the kind of barbarously sticky Americanafternoon that made me yearn for the shadows cast by scooting summer clouds in northern Europe,yearn even for those days when you play cricket wearing two sweaters under a cold sky patchedhere and there by a blue tatter—enough to make a sailor’s pants, as my mother used to say.

    By the standards I brought to it, Walker Park was a very poor place for cricket. The playingarea was, and I am sure still is, half the size of a regulation cricket field. The outfield isuneven and always overgrown, even when cut (once, chasing a ball, I nearly tripped over ahidden and, to cricketers, ominous duck), and whereas proper cricket, as some might call it, isplayed on a grass wicket, the pitch at Walker Park is made of clay, not turf, and must becovered with coconut matting; moreover the clay is pale sandy baseball clay, not red cricketclay, and its bounce cannot be counted on to stay true for long; and to the extent that thebounce is true, it lacks variety and complexity. (Wickets consisting of earth and grass arerich with possibility: only they can fully challenge and reward a bowler’s repertoire ofcutters and spinners and bouncers and seamers, and only these, in turn, can bring out and fullytest a batsman’s repertoire of defensive and attacking strokes, not to mention his mentalpowers.) There is another problem. Large trees—pin oaks, red oaks, sweetgums, American lindentrees—clutter the fringes of Walker Park. Any part of these trees, even the smallest hangingleaf, must be treated as part of the boundary, and this brings randomness into the game. Oftena ball will roll between the tree trunks, and the fielder running after it will partiallydisappear, so that when he reappears, ball in hand, a shouting match will start up about

exactly what happened.

    By local standards, however, Walker Park is an attractive venue. Tennis courts said to be theoldest in the United States neighbor the cricket field, and the park itself is surrounded onall sides by Victorian houses with elaborately planted gardens. For as long as anyone canremember, the local residents have tolerated the occasional crash of a cricket ball, arrivinglike a gigantic meteoritic cranberry, into their flowering shrubbery. Staten Island CricketClub was founded in 1872, and its teams have played on this little green every summer for overa hundred years. Walker Park was owned by the club until the 1920s. Nowadays the land and itsclubhouse—a neo-Tudor brick structure dating back to the 1930s, its precursor having beendestroyed by fire—are the property of the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation. Inmy time, a parks department employee, a phantom-like individual who was never seen, reportedlylived in the attic. The main room was rented out to a nursery school, and only the basement andthe beaten-up locker room were routinely made available to cricketers. Nevertheless, no otherNew York cricket club enjoys such amenities or such a glorious history: Donald Bradman andGarry Sobers, the greatest cricketers of all time, have played at Walker Park. The old groundis also fortunate in its tranquillity. Other cricketing venues, places such as Idlewild Parkand Marine Park and Monroe Cohen Ballfield, lie directly beneath the skyways to JFK. Elsewhere,for example Seaview Park (which of course has no view of a sea), in Canarsie, the setting ismarred not only by screeching aircraft but also by the inexhaustible roar of the Belt Parkway,the loop of asphalt that separates much of south Brooklyn from salt water.

    What all these recreational areas have in common is a rank outfield that largely undermines theart of batting, which is directed at hitting the ball along the ground with that elegantvariety of strokes a skillful batsman will have spent years trying to master and preserve: theglance, the hook, the cut, the sweep, the cover drive, the pull, and all those other offspringof technique conceived to send the cricket ball rolling and rolling, as if by magic, to thefar-off edge of the playing field. Play such orthodox shots in New York and the ball will morethan likely halt in the tangled, weedy ground cover: grass as I understand it, a fragrant plantwondrously suited for athletic pastimes, flourishes with difficulty; and if something green andgrasslike does grow, it is never cut down as cricket requires. Consequently, in breach of thefirst rule of batting, the batsman is forced to smash the ball into the air (to go deep, aswe’d say, borrowing the baseball term) and batting is turned into a gamble. As a result,fielding is distorted, too, since the fielders are quickly removed from their infieldpositions—point, extra cover, midwicket, and the others—to distant stations on the boundary,where they listlessly linger. It’s as if baseball were a game about home runs rather than basehits, and its basemen were relocated to spots deep in the outfield. This degenerate version ofthe sport—bush cricket, as Chuck more than once dismissed it—inflicts an injury that isaesthetic as much as anything: the American adaptation is devoid of the beauty of cricketplayed on a lawn of appropriate dimensions, where the white-clad ring of infielders, swanningfigures on the vast oval, again and again converge in unison toward the batsman and again andagain scatter back to their starting points, a repetition of pulmonary rhythm, as if the fieldbreathed through its luminous visitors.

    This is not to say that New York cricket is without charm. One summer afternoon years ago, Isat in a taxi with Rachel in the Bronx. We were making the trip to visit friends in Riverdaleand were driving up Broadway, which I had no idea extended this far north.

    “Oh! Look, darling,” Rachel said.

    She was pointing down to our right. Scores of cricketers swarmed on a tract of open parkland.Seven or eight matches, eleven-a-side, were under way in a space that was strictly large enoughfor only three or four matches, so that the various playing areas, demarcated by red cones andfootpaths and garbage barrels and foam cups, confusingly overlapped. Men in white from one gamemingled with men in white from another, and a profusion of bowlers simultaneously whirled theirarms in that windmill action of cricket bowlers, and multiple batsmen swung flat willow cudgelsat once, and cricket balls chased by milky sprinters flew in every direction. Onlookerssurrounded the grounds. Some sat beneath the trees that lined the park at Broadway; others, in

    the distance, where trees grew tall and dense at the edge of the common, gathered by picnictables. Children milled, as it’s said. From our elevated vantage point the scene—VanCortlandt Park on a Sunday—appeared as a cheerful pell-mell, and as we drove by Rachel said,“It looks like a Brueghel,” and I smiled at her because she was exactly right, and as Iremember I put my hand on her stomach. It was July 1999. She was seven months pregnant with ourson.

    The day I met Chuck was three years later. We, Staten Island, were playing a bunch of guys fromSt. Kitts—Kittitians, as they’re called, as if they might all be followers of someesoterically technical profession. My own teammates variously originated from Trinidad, Guyana,Jamaica, India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. That summer of 2002, when out of loneliness I playedafter years of not playing, and in the summer that followed, I was the only white man I saw onthe cricket fields of New York.

    A while back, the parks department had put a rivalrous baseball diamond in the southwest cornerof Walker Park. Cricketers were not licensed to take the field until the completion of anyauthorized softball game. (Softball, my teammates and I observed with a touch of snobbery, wasa pastime that seemingly turned on hitting full tosses—the easiest balls a cricket batsmanwill ever receive—and taking soft, glove-assisted catches involving little of the skill andnone of the nerve needed to catch the cricket ball’s red rock with bare hands.) The matchagainst the Kittitians, due to start at one o’clock, did not begin until an hour later, whenthe softball players—aging and overweight men much like ourselves, only white-skinned—at lastshuffled away. The trouble started with this holdup. The Kittitians brought a large number offollowers, perhaps as many as forty, and the delay made them restless, and they began toentertain themselves with more abandon than was usual. A group formed around a Toyota parked onDelafield Place, at the northern border of the ground, the men flagrantly helping themselves toalcoholic drinks from a cooler, and shouting, and tapping keys against their beer bottles inrhythm to the soca that rattled insistently from the Toyota’s speakers. Fearful of complaints,our president, a blazer-wearing Bajan in his seventies named Calvin Pereira, approached the menand said with a smile, “Gentlemen, you are very welcome, but I must ask you to exercisediscretion. We cannot have trouble with the parks department. Can I invite you to turn off themusic and come join us inside the ground?” The men gradually complied, but this incident, itwas afterward agreed, influenced the confrontation for which those present will always rememberthat afternoon.

    Before the start of play, one of our team, Ramesh, drew us into a circle for a prayer. Wehuddled with arms around one another’s shoulders—nominally, three Hindus, three Christians, aSikh, and four Muslims. “Lord,” said the Reverend Ramesh, as we called him, “we thank Youfor bringing us here today for this friendly game. We ask that You keep us safe and fit duringthe match today. We ask for clement weather. We ask for Your blessing upon this game, Lord.”We broke up in a burst of clapping and took to the field.

    The men from St. Kitts batted for just over two hours. Throughout their innings theirsupporters maintained the usual hullabaloo of laughter and heckling and wisecracks from thefield’s east boundary, where they congregated in the leaves’ shadows and drank rum out ofpaper cups and ate barbecued red snapper and chicken. “Beat the ball!” they shouted, and“The man chucking!” and, raising their arms into the scarecrow pose that signals a wide ball,“Wide, umpire, wide!” Our turn came to bat. As the innings wore on and the game grew tighterand more and more rum was drunk, the musical din started up again from the Toyota, where menhad gathered once again, and the shouting of the spectators grew more emotional. In thisatmosphere, by no means rare for New York cricket, the proceedings on and off the field becamemore and more combative. At a certain moment the visitors fell prey to the suspicion,apparently never far from the mind of cricketers in that city, that a conspiracy to rob them ofvictory was afoot, and the appeals of the fielders (“How’s that, umpire? Ump!”) assumed abitter, disputatious character, and a fight nearly broke out between a fielder in the deep andan onlooker who had said something.

    It did not surprise me, therefore, when I took my turn to bat, to receive three bouncers in arow, the last of which was too quick for me and whacked my helmet. There were angry shouts frommy teammates—“Wha’ scene you on, boy?”—and it was at this point that the umpire recognizedhis duty to intervene. He wore a Panama hat and a white umpire’s coat that gave him the air ofa man conducting an important laboratory experiment—which, in his own way, he was. “Play thegame,” Chuck Ramkissoon evenly told the bowler. “I’m warning you for the last time: one morebumper and you’re coming off.”

    Apart from spitting at the ground, the bowler didn’t respond. He returned to his mark, ran into bowl, and delivered another throat-ball. With roars and counter-roars of outrage coming fromthe boundary, Chuck approached the captain of the fielding team. “I warned the bowler,” Chucksaid, “and he disregarded the warning. He’s not bowling anymore.” The other fielders ran inand noisily surrounded Chuck. “What right you have? You never warn him.” I made a move to getinvolved, but Umar, my Pakistani batting partner, held me back. “You stay here. It’s alwaysthe same with these people.”

    Then, as the argument on and off the field continued—“You thiefing we, umpire! You thiefingwe!”—my eye was drawn to a figure walking slowly in the direction of the parked cars. I keptwatching him because there was something mysterious about this person choosing to leave at sucha moment of drama. He was in no hurry, it seemed. He slowly opened the door of a car, leanedin, reached around for a few moments, then stood up straight and shut the door. He appeared tobe holding something in his hand as he strolled back into the grounds. People started shoutingand running. A woman screamed. My teammates, grouped on the boundary, set off in everydirection, some into the tennis courts, others to hide behind trees. Now the man was amblingover somewhat uncertainly. It occurred to me he was very drunk. “No, Tino,” somebody shouted.

    “Oh shit,” Umar said, starting toward the baseball diamond. “Run, run.”

    But, in some sense paralyzed by this unreal dawdling gunman, I stayed where I was, tightlygripping my Gunn & Moore Maestro bat. The fielders, meanwhile, were backing away, hands halfraised in panic and imploration. “Put it down, put it down, man,” one of them said. “Tino!Tino!” a voice shouted. “Come back, Tino!”

    As for Chuck, he now stood alone. Except for me, that is. I stood a few yards away. Thisrequired no courage on my part, because I felt nothing. I experienced the occasion as a kind ofemptiness.

    The man stopped ten feet from Chuck. He held the gun limply. He looked at me, then back atChuck. He was speechless and sweating. He was trying, as Chuck would afterward relate, tounderstand the logic of his situation.

    The three of us stood there for what seemed a long time. A container ship silently went throughthe back gardens of the houses on Delafield Place.

    Chuck took a step forward. “Leave the field of play, sir,” he said firmly. He extended hispalm toward the clubhouse, an usher’s gesture. “Leave immediately please. You are interferingwith play. Captain,” Chuck said loudly, turning to the Kittitian captain, who was a littledistance away, “please escort this gentleman from the field.”

    The captain tentatively came forward. “I coming now, Tino,” he called out. “Right behindyou. No foolishness, now.”

    “Don’t worry,” Tino muttered. He looked overcome by exhaustion. He dropped the gun and leftthe field slowly, shaking his head. After a short break, play resumed. Nobody saw any reason tocall the cops.

    When the match ended, both teams came together by the old clubhouse and shared Coors Lights andwhiskey Cokes and Chinese takeout and talked gravely about what had taken place. Somebodycalled for quiet, and Chuck Ramkissoon stepped forward into the center of the gathering.

    “We have an expression in the English language,” he said, as silence began to establishitself among the players. “The expression is ‘not cricket.’ When we disapprove of something,we say ‘It’s not cricket.’ We do not say ‘It’s not baseball.’ Or ‘It’s not football.’

    We say ‘It’s not cricket.’ This is a tribute to the game we play, and it’s a tribute tous.” By now, all chatter had ceased. We stood around the speaker, solemnly staring at ourfeet. “But with this tribute comes a responsibility. Look here,” Chuck said, pointing at theclub crest on a Staten Island player’s shirt. “LUDE LUDUM INSIGNIA SECUNDARIA, it says here.Now I do not know Latin, but I’m told it means, and I’m sure you’ll correct me, Mr.President, if I’m wrong”—Chuck nodded at our club president—“it means, ‘Winning isn’teverything. It’s only a game.’ Now, games are important. They test us. They teach uscomradeship. They’re fun. But cricket, more than any other sport, is, I want to say”—Chuckpaused for effect—“a lesson in civility. We all know this; I do not need to say more aboutit.” A few heads were nodding. “Something else. We are playing this game in the UnitedStates. This is a difficult environment for us. We play where we can, wherever they let us.Here at Walker Park, we’re lucky; we have locker-room facilities, which we share withstrangers and passersby. Most other places we must find a tree or bush.” One or two listenersexchanged looks. “Just today,” Chuck continued, “we started late because the baseballplayers have first right to play on this field. And now, when we have finished the game, wemust take our drinks in brown paper bags. It doesn’t matter that we have played here, atWalker Park, every year for over a hundred years. It doesn’t matter that this ground was builtas a cricket ground. Is there one good cricket facility in this city? No. Not one. It doesn’tmatter that we have more than one hundred and fifty clubs playing in the New York area. Itdoesn’t matter that cricket is the biggest, fasting-growing bat-and-ball game in the world.None of it matters. In this country, we’re nowhere. We’re a joke. Cricket? How funny. So weplay as a matter of indulgence. And if we step out of line, believe me, this indulgencedisappears. What this means,” Chuck said, raising his voice as murmurs and cracks and chucklesbegan to run through his audience, “what this means is, we have an extra responsibility toplay the game right. We have to prove ourselves. We have to let our hosts see that thesestrange-looking guys are up to something worthwhile. I say ‘see.’ I don’t know why I usethat word. Every summer the parks of this city are taken over by hundreds of cricketers butsomehow nobody notices. It’s like we’re invisible. Now that’s nothing new, for those of uswho are black or brown. As for those who are not”—Chuck acknowledged my presence with asmile—“you’ll forgive me, I hope, if I say that I sometimes tell people, You want a taste ofhow it feels to be a black man in this country? Put on the white clothes of the cricketer. Puton white to feel black.” People laughed, mostly out of embarrassment. One of my teammatesextended his fist to me, and I gave it a soft punch. “But we don’t mind, right, just so longas we can play? Just leave us alone, and we’ll make do. Right? But I say we must take a morepositive attitude. I say we must claim our rightful place in this wonderful country. Crickethas a long history in the United States, actually. Benjamin Franklin himself was a cricket man.I won’t go into that now,” Chuck said quickly, because a frankly competing hubbub had brokenout among the players. “Let us just be thankful that it all ended well, and that cricket wasthe winner today.”

    There the umpire stopped, to faltering applause; and soon after, everybody headed home—toHoboken and Passaic and Queens and Brooklyn and, in my case, to Manhattan. I took the Staten

    John F. Kennedy; and it was on board that enormousIsland Ferry, which on that occasion was the

    orange tub that I ran once again into Chuck Ramkissoon. I spotted him on the foredeck, amongthe tourists and romantics absorbed by the famous sights of New York Bay.

    I bought a beer and sat down in the saloon, where a pair of pigeons roosted on a ledge. Aftersome intolerable minutes in the company of my thoughts, I picked up my bag and went forward tojoin Chuck.

    I couldn’t see him. I was about to turn back when I realized he was right in front me and hadbeen hidden by the woman he was kissing. Mortified, I tried to retreat without attracting hisattention; but when you’re six feet five, certain maneuvers are not easily accomplished.

    “Well, hello,” Chuck said. “Good to see you. My dear, this is—”

    “Hans,” I said. “Hans van den Broek.”

    “Hi,” the woman said, retreating into Chuck’s arms. She was in her early forties with blondcurls and a plump chin. She wiggled a set of fingers at me.

    “Let me introduce myself properly,” Chuck said. “Chuck Ramkissoon.” We shook hands. “Vanden Broek,” he said, trying out the name. “South African?”

    “I’m from Holland,” I said, apologizing.

    “Holland? Sure, why not.” He was disappointed, naturally. He would have preferred that I’dcome from the land of Barry Richards and Allan Donald and Graeme Pollock.

    I said, “And you are from…?”

    “Here,” Chuck affirmed. “The United States.”

    His girlfriend elbowed him.

    “What do you want me to say?” Chuck said.

    “Trinidad,” the woman said, looking proudly at Chuck. “He’s from Trinidad.”

    I awkwardly motioned with my can of beer. “Listen, I’ll leave you guys to it. I was justcoming out for some fresh air.”

    Chuck said, “No, no, no. You stay right here.”

    His companion said to me, “Were you at the game today? He told me about what happened. Wild.”

    I said, “The way he handled it was quite something. And that was some speech you gave.”

    “Well, I’ve had practice,” Chuck said, smiling at his friend.

    Pushing at his chest, the woman said, “Practice making speeches or practice with life-and-death situations?”

    “Both,” Chuck said. They laughed together, and of course it struck me that they made anunusual couple: she, American and white and petite and fair-haired; he, a portly immigrant adecade older and very dark—like Coca-Cola, he would say. His coloring came from his mother’sfamily, which originated in the south of India somewhere—Madras, was Chuck’s suspicion. Hewas a descendant of indentured laborers and had little firm information about such things.

    An event for antique sailing ships was taking place in the bay. Schooners, their canvas hardlydistended in the still air, clustered around and beyond Ellis Island. “Don’t you just lovethis ferry ride?” Chuck’s girlfriend said. We slipped past one of the ships, a clutter ofmasts and ropes and sails, and she and Chuck joined other passengers in exchanging waves withits crew. Chuck said, “See that sail there? That triangular sail right at the very top?That’s the skyscraper. Unless it’s the moonsail. Moonsail or skyscraper, one of the two.”

    “You’re an expert on boats, now?” his girlfriend said. “Is there anything you don’t knowabout? OK, smarty-pants, which one is the jolly jumper? Or the mizzen. Show me a mizzen, ifyou’re so smart.”

    “You’re a mizzen,” Chuck said, fastening his arm around her. “You’re my mizzen.”

    The ferry slowed down as we approached Manhattan. In the shade of the huddled towers, the waterwas the color of a plum. Passengers emerged from the ferry lounge and began to fill up thedeck. Banging against the wooden bumpers of the terminal, the ship came to a stop. Everybodydisembarked as a swarm into the cavernous terminal, so that I, toting my cricketer’s coffin,became separated from Chuck and his girlfriend. It was only when I’d descended the rampleading out of the terminal that I saw them again, walking hand in hand in the direction ofBattery Park.

    I found a taxi and took it straight home. I was tired. As for Chuck, even though he interestedme, he was older than me by almost twenty years, and my prejudices confined him, this oddballumpiring orator, to my exotic cricketing circle, which made no intersection with thecircumstances of my everyday life.

    ?????????

    T hose circumstances were, I should say, unbearable. Almost a year had passed since my wife’sannouncement that she was leaving New York and returning to London with Jake. This took placeone October night as we lay next to each other in bed on the ninth floor of the Hotel Chelsea.We’d been holed up in there since mid-September, staying on in a kind of paralysis even afterwe’d received permission from the authorities to return to our loft in Tribeca. Our hotelapartment had two bedrooms, a kitchenette, and a view of the tip of the Empire State Building.It also had extraordinary acoustics: in the hush of the small hours, a goods truck smashinginto a pothole sounded like an explosion, and the fantastic howl of a passing motorbike oncecaused Rachel to vomit with terror. Around the clock, ambulances sped eastward on West Twenty-third Street with a sobbing escort of police motorcycles. Sometimes I confused the cries of thesirens with my son’s nighttime cries. I would leap out of bed and go to his bedroom andhelplessly kiss him, even though my rough face sometimes woke him and I’d have to stay withhim and rub his tiny rigid back until he fell asleep once more. Afterward I slipped out ontothe balcony and stood there like a sentry. The pallor of the so-called hours of darkness wasremarkable. Directly to the north of the hotel, a succession of cross streets glowed as if eachheld a dawn. The taillights, the coarse blaze of deserted office buildings, the litstorefronts, the orange fuzz of the street lanterns: all this garbage of light had been refinedinto a radiant atmosphere that rested in a low silver heap over Midtown and introduced to mymind the mad thought that the final twilight was upon New York. Returning to bed, where Rachellay as if asleep, I would roll onto my side and find my thoughts forcibly embroiled inpreparations for a sudden flight from the city. The list of essential belongings wasshort—passports, a box full of photographs, my son’s toy trains, some jewelry, the laptopcomputer, a selection of Rachel’s favorite shoes and dresses, a manila envelope filled withofficial documents—and if it came down to it, even these items were dispensable. Even I wasdispensable, I recognized with an odd feeling of comfort; and before long I would be caught upin a recurring dream in which, finding myself on a subway train, I threw myself over a tickinggadget and in this way sacrificed my life to save my family. When I told Rachel about mynightmare—it qualified as such, for the dreamed bomb exploded every time, waking me up—shewas making some adjustment to her hair in the bathroom mirror. Ever since I’d known her, shehad kept her hair short, almost like a boy’s. “Don’t even think of getting off thatlightly,” she said, moving past me into the bedroom.

    She had fears of her own, in particular the feeling in her bones that Times Square, where theoffices of her law firm were situated, would be the site of the next attack. The Times Squaresubway station was a special ordeal for her. Every time I set foot in that makeshift cementunderworld—it was the stop for my own office, where I usually turned up at seven in themorning, two hours before Rachel began her working day—I tasted her anxiety. Throngs endlesslyclimbed and descended the passages and walkways like Escher’s tramping figures. Bare high-wattage bulbs hung from the low-lying girders, and temporary partitions and wooden platformsand posted handwritten directions signaled that around us a hidden and incalculable process ofconstruction or ruination was being undertaken. The unfathomable and catastrophic atmospherewas only heightened by the ever-present spectacle, in one of the principal caverns of thatstation, of a little Hispanic man dancing with a life-size dummy. Dressed entirely in black andgripping his inanimate partner with grotesque eagerness, the man sweated and pranced andshuffled his way through a series, for all I know, of fox-trots and tangos and fandangos andpaso dobles, intently twitching and nuzzling his puppet to the movements of the music, his eyesalways sealed. Passersby stopped and gawked. There was something dire going on—something thatwent beyond the desperation, economic and artistic, discernible on the man’s damp features,beyond even the sexual perverseness of his routine. The puppet had something to do with it. Herhands and feet were bound to her master’s. She wore a short, lewd black skirt, and her hairwas black and unruly in the manner of a cartoon Gypsy girl. Crude features had been inscribedon her face, and this gave her a blank, bottomless look. Although bodily responsive to herconsort’s expert promptings—when he placed his hand on her rump, she gave a spasm ofecstasy—her countenance remained a fog. Its vacancy was unanswerable, endless; and yet thisman was nakedly in thrall to her…No doubt I was in an unhealthy state of mind, because the

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