The Faucet King lived on the fourth floor of an art nouveau building noticeably lacking a doorman. Comparable residences each way on 86th featured doormen with epaulets and loud whistles. The owners of this building, however, still considered themselves socialists. And everyone knew that socialists didn’t pay people to open doors for them.
Emily had entrusted Tibbi with the key to The Faucet King’s apartment, where she found him waiting on the smart-colored sofa, stretched out with his shoes kicked off.
“I can’t get up,” he complained when he saw her face. “I’ve ruined a muscle playing tennis with Ola.”
“Tennis?” she said, shaking off her jacket behind her and throwing it onto a smart-colored chair. “Since when did you play tennis? Don’t you need all four fingers for that?”
“Be kind to people who are old men at thirty-five. And I had to borrow terrible shoes from the club because rubber is still one of the American crown jewels.”
She snatched a cigarette from its silver coffin on the gleaming cocktail table and fell onto the sofa beside her lover’s legs. When he leaned forward with his lighter he cried out like an animal.
“I really have no pity for you,” she said, taking the lighter to do the job herself. “Tennis? You’ll never be re-admitted to the sans-culottes.”
“Americans tell you, ‘You must try everything once.’ Well I had my day on court.”
She reclined backward, settling her shoulders onto his chest, and proceeded to smoke leisurely in the ensuing silence.
The Faucet King and Queen were secretive but significant collectors of Oriental statuary, Near and Far. Their apartment was filled with Buddhist, Hindu, and dynastic antiquities, the larger ones sitting solidly on the floor, those of medium size displayed on museum pedestals, and the small ones lined up in rows in black bookcases. Their extensive collection was the primary reason that Emily’s friend had been on retainer to do the dusting—especially the many arms and cantaloupe bosoms of the Hindu Devas. The regular housekeeper could not be trusted to dust irreplaceable art unsupervised.
Emily studied the rows of valuable little things—elephantine trunks, bent wrists, ripened bellies, and god-toting beasts. The lurching dragons reminded her of cavalry troops awaiting inspection according to rank. “I think I’ve become quite fond of all these monsters staring at me.”
“Perhaps some represent your ancestors,” he lazily suggested. “The Hindu believe we are made reincarnate when we die.”
She laughed. “Certain people can remain good and dead as far as I’m concerned.”
He pointed to intertwined females with elaborate headdress and whispered in her ear, “I will gladly take home those four dancing ladies, thank you very much. Come now, girls—come with me.”
“They call that bird you’ve been criticizing so much a fenghuang—I looked that up the other day.”
“Why would anyone waste his time with a bird when the lucky dragons fly so free and plentiful in the Orient?” He held her tight. “We’re lucky to be here, Melitta.”
Her passive silence meant she supposed this was so—that she was guilty of the crime of luck. Somehow, though, she doubted that her life would ever cease being a puzzle. She never grew comfortable enough to stop marveling at how she wasn’t ruined as an intellect given the way she was raised. And now this story about her father only amplified how close to tragic her life had veered from the very start.
“I wonder if my father became lucky after he got rid of me,” she said, reaching and leaning to tap her cigarette into a tray. “With me he was ‘full of despair.’ When he walked away from the basket he must’ve felt so much lighter, a free man.”
From somewhere on his person Tibbi conjured a flower—snapped, no doubt, from the bouquet by the door—to place behind her ear. She couldn’t see what kind of flower, but that tissue-wrapped greenhouse scent—the fragrant but lulling provenance of the privileged—made her eyelids roll down like a doll’s.
He stroked her cheek near the petals. “I think, édesem, it was you became free when he walked away. He was a wretched man to leave a baby in the wilderness. Fate may not have been so kind to you then, but it’s paying big dividends now. Look what you’ve become. Look what fate has done for me, putting you in my arms.”
“I was thinking today about what we owe our parents simply for the act of hatching us, regardless of how we were handled on the outside.”
“I was thinking of my parents today.”
This was true—particularly his mother, who called him “a lost boy” during his days at university, when he joined a syndicalist cell only to be repeatedly arrested and beaten by the Arrow Cross. “Why do you do this to God,” she would cry, “squandering his gift to fraternize with thugs?” To his mother, all Communists and Socialists were secular illiterates too lazy to rise to their full potential. Eventually he went to Paris—primarily to join the momentum of Blum’s Socialists but also because that’s what you did as a Hungarian. He met and married Natalia, the aristocratic bohemian, and then made the mistake—one of many at the time—of returning with her to Rome.
“I hope they’re alive, Tibbi.”
He continued to think of his parents for the reason he did so earlier that day. “Of course I love them,” he declared. “I love them even with their hamartia—being the complacent, trusting Jews of Budapest. My father thought that just because all the city’s doctors were Jews, they would remain safe from purges. ‘But who will care for their sick children?’ My mother would wave her hand—‘Enough with your insolent politics!’ Who today wants to hear a political lecture from a Communist poet? What they want is verse to make them feel that they have a soul.”
“Yuli was going on and on this morning about how it was the Petrashevsky Circle that gave Europe the modern idea of mass extermination. When the tsar arrested their members and sentenced some to civil execution, this showed that you could eradicate your declared irritants—political, ethnic, what have you—without spilling blood. You numb the cultural feeling, so that when it came time to spill the blood, the feeling was already gone.”
This made him laugh: “Perhaps I’m just a Petrashevskian reincarnated. I have killed no one but have been killed more times than I have fingers. You can die only so many deaths. After that you become absurd.”
She felt for his hand on her stomach. “Do you think they’re right?”
“The Hindu. Do we become reincarnated as other people or things?”
“I would not wish to be a thing—no, not at all. But an animal . . . perhaps. One that lives a very long time and is not eaten easily. A tortoise the size of an ottoman, for example, led on a silver string by a beautiful young woman walking barefoot down Váci Utca.”
She laughed. “I thought that’s what you were before you became Tibbi.”
He held her tighter. “I don’t want to grow old, Melitta.”
“I do think of time as being cyclical,” she said, her voice crystalline in its certainty, “like the seasons—in the same way I think the novel does not get told in a straight line. It’s character that remains to drive the story; the people come and go, die and get born. As human beings we have such limited access to information of other people’s lives, of conceptualizing the complex web of relationships. We like to talk about ‘the truth,’ but this is just the ability to see how this relates to that.”
“That is what I am writing in my notebook,” he told her, “the story in the shape of a ring, closed with the clasp of an apocryphal sonnet—a continuously curving, and thus infinite, sentence.”
She gave a start and turned her head as far as she could to face him. “You haven’t shown me this!”
“I have no patience with Five Winters,” he confessed. “How do you write of burning fields from the apse of a penthouse? So much has changed from the world that forced my hand to that verse.”
“You mustn’t abandon it, Tibbi.”
“You said we don’t write in a straight line; thus nothing can be abandoned.”
“Maybe you’re right,” she said, settling back into their conjoined recline, like kids in white ankle socks on the grass in Central Park. “Maybe all literature is just one work-in-progress. It teaches us how to be better at life by allowing us to practice our thinking on make-believe people.”
He laughed. “To me it’s the real people who seem make-believe.”
“Reading novels is like the pianist playing preparatory etudes—or the silly kitty yanking off the tail of the toy mouse so that he will be a master tail-yanker when he crosses paths with the real thing.”
He grunted. “Or Nicholas pulling the hood over Dostoyevsky.”
“Show me your notebook.”
He sat up and strained to pull the sleeve of his jacket splayed across a Klismos chair. With his catch reeled in, he removed from within it a notebook, on which was written The 86th Dragon.
“I am writing in English.”
She laughed. “English?”
He mimed the precocious boy with feelings to be offended. “Why do you mock me so when you will not even show me, the man who loves you like his slippers, what you have written? Why do you show Margie your book and not me?”
She snatched his notebook like a child would a prized toy. “Because Margie, like my correspondent from Watertown, is an impartial observer, whereas you—you who say you love me like your slippers—are biased.”
“Margie loves you too, Melitta.”
“You say that because you have a bisexual wife.”
“All artistic women are bisexual. It is a known fact.”
She laughed. “Margie would sell me down the river in a heartbeat for a chance at Cal Lowell or Yves Tanguy.”
He looked hurt, and not just from his back. “I sometimes fear you would sell me down a river in favor of a book.”
With a mother’s sympathy, and with the notebook still in her hand, she slipped his arms back around her waist and leaned back. Still, she felt truth in his charge that she loved books excessively—so many fleeting and fickle loves but an unwavering fascination with War and Peace. She recognized all of its problems but was mystified by the intent, Tolstoy’s didactic construct. Even as a teenager she’d had the self-awareness to know that she could not write if she could not do so big. She wanted to write a story about a man from a village called Esperance, a boy like Lincoln who rises from poverty to become not a president but a motion picture director. But you need to go back one generation and another and another until you get to the derailed moral intentions that triggered the Civil War. You need to write about the idealistic ancestor who fights for the Union and comes home a nihilist. You need to write about his Gilded Age failures and the maturing of his sons and daughters through the Great War and the twenties. Emily’s work would be much like Tolstoy’s grand scheme for the composition of War and Peace—only with the entire lower half on the nation standing in for the despicable Napoleon and his hairy back.
She and Yuli could lapse into an hour’s digression on the proper seating arrangement within the pantheon of Gogol and Pushkin, Tolstoy and Turgenev, Dostoyevsky and Chekhov. Yuli, however, could stomach “large” only as handled in Le Rouge et le noir. He thought Stendhal articulated the economy of affection better than anyone before or since: True love makes the thought of death frequent, easy, without terrors; it merely becomes the standard of comparison, the price one would pay for many things.
He made a noise.
“I do want to go to Europe now that the war’s over, to see for myself what’s happened.”
“You don’t want to be a critic you said.”
“Not as a critic,” she told him, “or a journalist for that matter. But as a writer. How can I write about war if I haven’t seen it?”
“You are a woman,” he said, curling his accent to sound like Charles Boyer, “you must write with tenderness.”
“I do write with tenderness.”
“I need to see what they did to Poland.”
She felt his embrace slacken.
“Now that you think you’re a Jew,” he said, “the world spins the other way, does it?”
“If I am to believe that letter-writer, I’m not just a Jew but a Polish Jew. I’d be dead nine times over. Everyone I read says ‘these are the true villains’ and ‘no, these are the true villains.’ I don’t want to be talked to by people who think they know. All the intellectuals in this city are consumed by one man—Stalin. These never-ending arguments and childish bickering that have no bearing on world events. Their little articles in their little reviews.”
“Just read Gogol. You Americans with your romances of the Old World—all so safe here in your thickly spun nests.”
“Did you forget that I was raised without parents to love me?” she asked. “That I was like a piece of furniture sent off at the whim of idiots? I resent people insinuating that I don’t know how dark, mean, and ugly the world is. I’ve aborted a child, Tibbi. And I’ve already read Gogol.”
Her first lover was the father of her longtime friend Miriam. When the school would not permit Miriam to place a call home when she was feeling terribly ill, Emily snuck out from the convent and managed to get the police to phone Miriam’s parents, who managed to get Miriam to hospital before her appendix ruptured. Emily began to spend holidays with Miriam’s family in Toronto when both girls were thirteen. Miriam’s father ran a unit at a large hospital. When Emily got pregnant, he knew exactly what to do.
Long before this—before Emily went away to school—the toothless old cook Annie-Jane had her nephew drive she and Emily downstate to see the place where Emily had been discovered as a baby. It seemed a long trip there and a long one back. Annie-Jane—already ancient, illiterate save for the ability to scratch “A” and “J” for the deed to her cemetery plot—pointed at the dark, frightening wood bridge that looked about to collapse: “See, it’s like a womb what you came from.”
Tibbi stroked and kissed her hair, whispering, “I am cruel; I know that.”
“You’re not cruel,” she said, grabbing his hand.
“My poor Little Orphan Annie.”
“Orphans are outsiders and outsiders make the best spies and spies make the best writers.”
“You should keep quiet about being a spy until both wars are over.”
“When you’re an outsider you can successfully spy on everyone.”
“Melitta, you live on impulse. What will you to say to your boxing husband about Russia? What will Mr. Hanscomb do when you tell him that now it is your time to go overseas? He will no doubt box your ears.”
She smiled to herself. “Oh, my Wally’s such a good boy. He’d never hurt a woman.”
He hated that he loved her so, but with this talk of Poland and Russia she had become for him the lightning rod on the cathedral spire—all his anger at the world now crackled toward her. She had been for him a refuge, a place into which one could disappear from so many displaced Europeans—the celebrated and the obscure, equally miserable and equally drunk. In his mind he could see himself and his Melitta escaping together to a place, but what he really wanted was a time—an enormous continent of time, taiga to tropics. That was the Atlantis he and all poets were lurching toward.
“Tibbi, darling, things will right themselves. I promise you that. And it may do us some good to be away from each other. You’ll realize how much you love me.”
He was not hearing it. “You would give up your chair at the library, the precious papers they bring you to read with the magnifying glass?”
“I want to get out from under the thumbs of those damned nuns!”
He wasn’t to be moved. “You behave as if I have no plans to return. Of course I do—of course I don’t want to stay here—but now is not the time. I cannot face what was already bad news four years ago.”
“Give me a date then—a month at least.”
“You have to stay with me,” he insisted. “I need you with me when I return. I don’t want to go back alone.”
“Some things you have to do alone, Tibbi.”
“No,” he said, clutching her tighter, “you won’t go from me.”
“I’m afraid I already have a ticket.”
In a fit of anger he let her go and got up despite his crippling pain. With both hands braced against his back, he grew wings as he paced menacingly among the gods and back and forth before the cabinet of dragons. Yes, yes, he knew. He’d grown soft like a woman—decadent and hideous in his acquisitiveness, like all the worst parts of Grosz’s paintings. America was rationed except for the rich like Ola Sklar, who lived beyond all limits of conscience. But couldn’t people see the joke he was carrying out, the burlesque of his choices? All the times he should have died—tuberculosis twice—twice!—as a child. Who lives through that? He had planned to tell her today about the telegram from the brother of his brother-in-law, sent to brace him for confirmation to follow. He had planned to tell her today what he’d just done after tennis—severed ties with Ola Moneybags—only now he felt betrayed. How could she treat him this way?
She sat up straight on the sofa’s edge. “You told me when we met. You said you made a choice—to stay and die or to escape and save your life. You seemed so certain then, so strong. You promised you wouldn’t fall to guilt.”
“Can’t you see that I don’t know who is this person Tibor Brull? I hear only what is said about him in English. Everything has become too foreign. I cannot tolerate the refugees and I cannot tolerate the culture that does all it can do to file down the sharp ends of their wits. It is cruel to cut a cat’s whiskers, and yet that is what America does to all who enter outside of birth. Can’t you understand that, Melitta?”
“Quiet, people will hear you.”
“Here is your history lesson, Melitta: It’s over—the castles plundered!”
“Don’t shout at me.”
“Someone needs to shout because you are an idiot girl!”
He had hurt himself—his back ached ferociously now—for having yelled like that, but she remained calm. He hoped he’d won the battle.
Her concentration made itself known by the way she stared at one object and then another in front of her before placing his notebook on the gleaming table. “This is the second time today a man has suggested I’m a fool,” she said, getting up and grabbing for her jacket on the chair. “I suggest you go play more tennis.”
When he ran to grab her wrist his back cracked in half quite suddenly, like he’d been stabbed clean through by a lightning bolt. He fell while pulling her arm and all that was attached to it. Together they went, a boisterous sendoff to their shared journey, toppling one pedestal and another and then, as if with a smack of an enormous whip, summoning forward the cavalry of dragons.
He hadn’t realized he’d been laying in miserable wait for this very reckoning—this epic retribution—all these years of his exile. He sat on the floor with her—minutes and then the time it took her body to stiffen like hollow timber and of course the dreadful industry to expel liquid within. In those first frantic moments he hoped there were aspects of anatomy that only mimicked death—surely there was a syndrome named after some Czech, where a body in shock stops breathing for one minute, two minutes, five minutes before reviving. If there were mock executions there had to be mock fatal blows. Then, with that hope crushed, he expected to be found at any moment amid his inflicted carnage—the police smashing through The Faucet King’s door, not for the sake of a dead girl with a camellia still behind her ear, but for the destruction of priceless antiquities, the ransacking of a temple. Or perhaps the prodigal Whit would indeed return. He needed for someone else to take action, to come upon the scene in horror. To stand on his feet would mean his collusion with time; to flee would mean he’d intended to do this to her—to the world by depriving it of her warm, moving body.
Fate was generous to her corpse, sparing it—and him—the grotesqueries that had been unimaginable to the bourgeois until the Nazis began offering them up on the hour, the half-hour, the half-minute. Why did her face bother to bruise so when all was still in her heart? He’d closed her lids with his thumbs (did the capo spare them, he wondered, for this very purpose?) and kissed both orbs, like some cryptic rite of the Catholics. She had mentioned how Tolstoy had made the look on the face of a corpse remain with you—a woman lost in childbirth seeming to say to her husband, “Ah, what have you done to me?” His Melitta would never accept this fate. Get me out of here, Tibbi! When he imagined her finding the whole thing silly enough for loud, musical laughter, his eyes stung bitterly, his mind rushed like a terrified child to Pushkin:
I loved you once: perhaps that love has yet
To die down thoroughly within my soul.
The statue of smirking, slatternly Vishnu—the very god she’d spoken about with so much animation the other week, as if an old friend met on the train platform—lie perfectly intact on its side. This injustice made the salt from his dried tears tingle like juice from a lemon. This wasn’t supposed to happen to Americans—death in their thickly spun nests. But of course the misfortune fell to those left behind. How efficiently the punishment dealt! How expediently avenged was his crime of blaspheming time as an infinite sentence!
The smiling Buddha, prominent survivor of this localized turmoil, sat comfortably on its fat column, illuminated by the street light through the wide windows. He remembered the baseball game he’d been taken to see, where boys far away turn the white numbers to show winners and losers: gods 2, mortals 0. At some random moment he found the courage to stand on his shaky old-man’s legs, slide his feet into his shoes in the dark, feel for his notebook and his jacket, and leave her behind.
He was a bent man hobbling on the street. The first Saturday night after Victory in Europe—you could feel it in the air, in the distant sounds of speeding cars and the parading stream of horns. A doorman encountered some blocks into his odyssey took pity. “Get you a taxi, sir?”
Why not? he asked himself—for the sake of expedience.
The whistle-blower was an enormous man. The distance between the gold buttons on his breastplate seemed like it should be the exact length of an archaic unit of measurement—a cubit or a verst. “Great week for the Old World,” was the amiable chatter he offered in service to Tibbi. “I’m sure you’ll be going back soon to wherever you come from.”
The white gloves attempting the impossible—to snap the fingers beneath them—reminded Tibbi of the three-fingered gloves Melitta knitted for him last Christmas. “The nuns,” she said, “made you knit to keep you from thinking about sex.” What a terrible existence, he immediately thought, of hearing her words in his head at every turn.
No, he told himself in the cab headed downtown, I would have chosen this course anyway. My family have perished and I would have chosen this course anyway. Melitta would have sailed off to never return—yes, I would have chosen this course anyway.
The driver reluctantly slowed to a stop in the dark. “This ain’t where you’re goin’, is it?”
There was a place on the bridge designated for the jumpers with a tied white handkerchief—to indicate surrender he supposed. He had in fact been shown the precise location—where some industrious Romanian welder had sawed—three months back, when he had absolutely no intention about the option of tragedy. He now wondered what would become of this secret league of Yiddish-speaking fixers—most of them neck-less little men with gravity-defying beards—who scoured Manhattan for ways to die.
You climbed the mesh barrier if you were young and able-bodied; if your back had been impaled by a lightning bolt you clawed your way onto anything like a wet cat from within a vat. Even in the wee hours you had to act fast so that the good citizens, on foot or in moving vehicles, would not intervene—although tonight even the air was intoxicated, had let down its guard.
Before he stepped onto air, he held out The 86th Dragon above the water churning black below. “You first”—he said it in English and watched as the notebook’s pages sprang into frantic distress, fluttering like a bird doomed by snapped wing, becoming more . . . and more . . . languid until, finally, the white speck completely disappeared.