As he starts the car, Dan Rogers can already smell the whiff of busy kitchens that will meet him at every traffic light. The streets are almost empty. The come-latelys, carrying every kind of foodstuff wrapped at the meeting point of the American Dream, scurry past on a carpet of leaves. Mrs. Rogers, for example, has prepared an intimate lunch at her beach house. An oasis of light, where Dan Rogers retreats to now and then for a few hours’ refuge. A curative ritual. When he arrives at the colonial-style house, she’ll greet him, summoning a kiss with the faintest twitch of her cheek…
I don’t mean gratuitously to interrupt the author – as you’ll have noticed in the previous chapter, I’ve tried to do that as little as possible – but, if we’re going to talk about my mother, I think I ought to do that directly, because that story deserves a whole separate chapter. Apart from that, it’s vital you understand that, here, Thanksgiving can paralyze everything: a police operation you’re risking your life in; the search for a ghost-woman who’s filtered into your head… You put off your whole life – and put up with the annual turkey jokes. (A bird shop near my house this year had a photo in its window: a feather duster in an oven, with the caption ‘Missing: one family bird’.) I also had to put up with New York’s damn bipolar weather at that time of year. I left my building, fought against an invisible force to close the door, and walked to the car under broken sunshine. The wind sent an army of gray clouds marching by, like they were going into battle with the Earth.
I only went to the Hamptons four times a year – two were Thanksgiving and Christmas – and every time I faced the trip, I’d be hit by a mystic sense of joy: Ella Fitzgerald would sing me out of Williamsburg, From this Moment On playing roughly as far as the first big cemetery on the way out of Brooklyn. And thus I’d venture out on my transcendent rise through Long Island, from necropolis to necropolis, southward to the Hamptons, that imposing final collection of mausoleums, where privileged people like my mother buried themselves alive in the warm seasons – to get used, I guess, to the cold solitude of marble.
And there it was already, before my eyes, the first graveyard. Just at the edge of the silence left by Ella before starting Every Time We Say Goodbye (I just love that subtle coincidence), one of my favorite views of the skyline appeared framed in my windshield: the great geometric mass of the metropolis and, in front, parallel to it, mocking it, its macabre scale model. That other, miniature stone city lining the river on this side: Calvary Cemetery, with its gravestones rising proudly up like little skyscrapers, much closer than those huge towers, those fleeting dwelling-places of men who, like me, wanted to feel immortal.
I was still shaken by my sinister meeting with Ronald the previous night, but I have to admit I almost liked the idea that, sooner or later, the inhabitants of the Big Apple would cross that Lethe at the hands of retards like the Sons of Fate and be laid to rest in that other twin city, with buildings made to measure. I pinched my fingers around Trump Tower and thought how small we are. It looked like a bar of dark chocolate from here. Then I looked at my thumb and how it bent too far, a trait I got from my father. That, and his inability to play piano. I suspect my mother never forgave us for that. Either of us.
That morning I’d woken with a fever, and ever since I was a kid, whenever I have a fever, it makes me want to be a better person. So, as I went on struggling against the recently formed alliance between my genetic code and Thanksgiving, I decided it wouldn’t do me any harm to put everything on hold for a few hours and eat dinner with my mother, who’d already taken the trouble to record one of her expressive silences on my answering machine.
I left the road between Brooklyn and Queens, and took the Long Island Expressway. To the beat of frenetic jazz I passed Mount Zion Cemetery and arrived at the Saint John Cemetery. Its black limousines, like mechanical bodyguards, guarded the great, green esplanade and its silent Mafiosi, resting in tombs beside their victims and murderers. I took a shortcut along the Interboro Parkway as far as the Cemetery of the Evergreens, then yielded to the long, straight drag along Cypress Hills Cemetery, my favorite. Miles and miles of highway stamped right and left by a green, vertical landscape between gravestones. Every time I pass through it I can’t help feeling a strange longing to succumb to my own mortality, and on that day especially, it was hard to keep control of the steering wheel. It wasn’t so strange. I’d soon understand why the proximity of death attracted me so much, and why it still does.
My forehead was burning. Oh, goodness, I thought. Goodness and evil seem like useless theoretical concepts faced with the empirical evidence of stone. Driving between those graveyards suddenly cleared up my vision and my memory. Maybe that’s why I heard Ronald’s voice again. The Sons of Fate. The little fucking job he had for me.
I could have refused, he’d warned me with his mayo-scented breath, fanning himself with the photos of the murders like a gore catalogue from the Metropolitan Museum. I could have refused, yes. But I was the best, or rather the only one who could attract them.
The Sons of Fate (or rather the Sons of Bitches, I think I said out loud), of course I’d heard of them. Lately their murders in homage to artistic masterpieces were all over the papers.
I gripped the steering wheel with both hands.
Ella was singing Just Do It and I smiled to myself as I squeezed the accelerator, aiming to scare a suicidal squirrel that was waiting cockily in the middle of the road but had no time to run away. I half-closed my eyes. I’ve never understood why squirrels do that. I felt a small obstacle under the wheels. ‘Fuck,’ I shouted. Although deep down… he’d been asking for it. The bet was too big for him. The stony angels smiled, motionless as I drove past. I crossed myself. But they didn’t answer.
Still, Dan Rogers senses he’ll be safe this afternoon. He’ll watch his white, hygienic mother and everything he’s left behind: his house, his position, his family. A world of opportunity that used to seem so stifling. All the way there, Ronald’s voice returns, like a copilot to his memories: those sons of bitches weren’t just murderers; they were gamblers and thieves. Right now they seemed interested in the owners of important, recently auctioned artworks. They were sybarites, and no one knew who they were or what they wanted. Maybe a fraternity of intellectual links, maybe economic ones. One thing seemed certain: they moved in the select circles of grand auctions, because they knew what some mansions had stored inside.
Their priority wasn’t killing.
It was all part of a vicious, sophisticated game. They left the cruelty of the crime in the hands of fate, but the modus operandi seemed clear.
They would hunt out an artwork owner and regular bidder at large-scale clandestine auctions and invite him to a private game of blackjack. There, they would send in their emissary – a psychopathic, red-head card addict named Lucio Manfredi, who they used as a puppet to play in their name – to ensure that, at a certain point, the victim would put the hunted work of art onto the table…
Of course, Ronald hadn’t understood my hysterical smile when I heard the name of that particular spaghetto, Manfredi, so I’ll explain: I was hardly going to tell my boss that I knew him from winning ten grand from him just nights before (mostly destined to pay off my debts). That would have made him take me off the case. It’d be just as bad as confessing to him that I wasn’t over my addiction, hadn’t given up illegal gambling, basically only plucked criminals for the police for kicks between jobs and, for that reason, had more things in common with the Sons of Fate than Ronald could even imagine: Lucio Manfredi, and the fact that nearly all the mistakes in our lives were due to fate.
‘They’re not murderers, Dan; they’re something worse,’ Ronald had warned me, seated on that bench, seemingly busy following a trail of ants with his eyes. If fate leaned against the chosen victim and he lost the game of blackjack, he had to hand said work of art to Manfredi in the manner and time chosen by the winners. If the loser didn’t respect the rules to the letter and the handover didn’t take place, the Sons of Fate would go after their booty and would take it with interest: they’d meticulously choose the life of the person most valuable to the loser (the person it would hurt them most to lose: sometimes the person’s own life or a family member’s), and the body would form part of the hair-raising scene of a crime, always inspired by a prestigious, universally recognized work of art.
A perfectly-lit scene.
A carefully proportioned frame created by artists, expert in horror. So far, and according to their investigations, the crime in the garden was a copy of Munch’s The Scream; the couple was Rodin’s The Kiss, and the headless woman, The Winged Victory of Samothrace. The few survivors reported that they wore tuxedos with their heads completely covered by rubber masks, like Roman busts who’d sprouted eyes. Right now their creative tendencies seemed to lean toward somewhat classical artists. Pretty obvious ones, in my opinion, but I understand it would have been too much to expect to be assigned to a group of psychos plagiarizing Rothko. Anyways, there was no way of foreseeing what would be the next homage, or who would be the next victim.
A flock of birds flying south suddenly took Ronald’s voice far away, and I realized I’d left the cemeteries behind. I headed for the coast. Now the landscape was alive again: bored, punished by predictable movements, apart from those birds. Little by little the vineyards burst onto the landscape, and the straight lines of the westward beaches sketched themselves out: the closed concert halls, the smashed glass left over from the previous night, the white piers emptied by the change of season. Long Beach, Lido Beach, John Beach… On the way through Freeport, I stopped like always to enjoy some oysters and beer. A little further along, a couple of old heavies were sunning themselves beside their Harleys, shining like two big, fat flies beside the water.
I suddenly felt none of that belonged to me.
I passed Rockville, its high school with its white English windows, with no bars or electric fences round the yard. Then Baldwin, Merrick, Bay Shore… and so all of Nassau County pulled away from my rear windshield, village by village. A whole series of breathable oxygen bubbles close to Manhattan, with their artificial lakes, their artificial ducks, their artificial pigeons, and their artificial children. I stared at the pumpkins still holding out beside some of the houses. They can last until Christmas in this country. Toothless, half rotten and with an ever more macabre, fixed grin. They reminded me of certain Senators.
That was how I was supposed to grow up. That was how I was brought up, I guess, in a time so flooded with mist that I can barely remember it now. My father died when I was too young to understand, and my mother decided we’d live on Long Island, something that was doubtless good for my education, though she did always keep an apartment in Manhattan so she could be alone – that is, far away from her family – when she needed. A place where she could be herself, and where her late-night soirees with select New York intellectuals and artists became famous. Where, by the way, there was never a space for me or my father. Neither he nor I ever asked too many questions. We obviously lacked her sensibility.
My mother had other plans for me. In Nassau, I should have gotten married before I turned thirty, driven a nice car, and limited myself to that tiny world. I’d meet some good kids who’d never seen Manhattan even though it was only twenty-four miles away: that world of perdition our mothers told us about in apocalyptic terms, ridden with street sex and drugs. The mere possibility of its existence was enough to make us jerk off. Still, not in the suburbs, in the suburbs we were protected from fate, but also from horror, I thought. Protected by the unassailable, threatening chain of cemeteries behind which the City of Fiction lay. Where everything was possible. Everything. Even life.
I pulled away in the car so violently that I sent two teenagers scurrying to the other side like hares. I didn’t envy them, but they wouldn’t envy me either, I thought. Especially if they knew what I was, what I did. Especially if they knew what Ronald had asked of me.
Within the next few days, posing as the fictional Herman Oza, Dan Rogers will acquire a Japanese antique at a major auction, thus placing himself in the murderers’ sights. The bait set, he will wait for the Sons of Fate to bite: they will summon him to a clandestine game of blackjack. He’ll face their spokesman, Manfredi, again, but under another identity. ‘That won’t be a problem,’ Dan Rogers assures the commissioner. He lights a cigarette that burns more brightly than it should and silently congratulates himself: on the night he met the Italian and cleaned him out, he wasn’t clumsy enough to tell him his real name.
Now: Did I say Henry? Or Hermann? I wondered as Ronald and I thought what to call my new character. My new cover. I’m afraid I had been clumsy enough to forget. I trusted the spaghetto’s memory would be just as bad as mine. In the end, I settled on Hermann so as not to get confused, and Ronald suggested Oza, I think because it was his mother’s maiden name. I ought to ask Barry, I thought, but no. No, no, no… I couldn’t. I couldn’t involve Barry; I’d been warned. For some reason, they thought it was dangerous. For some reason, they didn’t want him involved. I could collaborate with the usual group of informers, but not with Barry. Not Barry. I tut-tutted and sped up again. I didn’t like hiding it. But what if something went wrong?
The first step would be for Ronald to try and trace the text messages the Sons of Fate used to stay in touch with Manfredi during the games, so they could play through him without revealing their identities. Even Ronald had doubts as to whether Manfredi knew his bosses personally; certainly, the scope of the crimes in terms of ‘production’ made one think that several people were carrying out the murders. At some point in the evening, the Italian would ask me to put the Japanese antique on the table as a stake. And that would mean I’d caught him. A first victory. I’d have to drag the game out for as long as I could, to give Ronald and his boys chance to locate the cell phone the messages were being sent from… ‘Card-counting, basically,’ Ronald had said to me; it was my specialty. ‘But not to win the game, kid,’ he specified, very seriously: ‘to lose it.’ To make myself human bait for the murderers.
I clung to the steering wheel and felt the familiar, dramatic prickling in my fingertips. The shirt on my back and the seat of the car started soaking with sweat. I’d never cheated to lose before. It went against my nature. But on the other hand, it excited me. I couldn’t help it. The stakes would be the highest I’d ever played. It turned me on just like sex, inviting danger to keep me company. What stimulated me most was that everything depended on me. And least: that Ronald knew I couldn’t refuse. It’s a law: give a gambler a double game – one card-game inside an even bigger one – and he’ll throw himself at it like a spider to a fly. Instinctively.
I wouldn’t wear a wire; it was too risky. And we wouldn’t fix the game either: given my fame as a gambler, that was another unnecessary danger (Ronald flattered me like he’d never done before). Once I entered their world of chance, I’d be alone. If I won, they’d withdraw like obedient exterminating angels. But if I lost, the hunt would begin. Ronald’s boys would have an apartment set up for me in a high-class Manhattan neighborhood in the name of Hermann Oza, the alias Ronald and I had chosen. The supposed magnate’s antique would be taken there with great pomp and fanfare. When the crooks went to collect, like bears lured to honey, they’d be arrested. Then I’d have to hide out somewhere away from the city for a while, as a precaution. Who knows for how long.
I looked at my fevered face in the rear-view mirror. Ah… Of course, it wasn’t goodness making me drive like a kamikaze for my own life; it was boredom. And Ronald was without doubt my only antidote to boredom. About 18 miles from there, on the south coast of Long Island where I was headed – and where my parents wound up buying themselves a vacation home as the culmination of their race toward social success – all the chauffeurs were named Fairchild and imported in bulk from England, along with the Rolls Royces, devoted and with considerable polish. Yes, the Hamptons, with its funeral parlors with golf courses, its summer houses, and its walls lined with literature bought by the pound.
What did I care for that green-lawned world, when my life’s darkest job lay in wait? When I was obsessed with the vision of a woman for the first time, a woman who – for now – only existed inside my head?
My brain was exploding. I wasn’t sure my body could cope with lunch with my mother. Besides, didn’t true compassion start with the self? So GOODNESS in capitals could start with the self too, I figured. So with that truth filling me with impatience, I shrank into the car and turned around. But before I’d driven half a mile back toward Manhattan, I skidded one-eighty, my ears drooping, and set off again to the south.
Look: there’s something I plan to convince you of before you finish reading this blessed book. I’m a good guy, GOOD, in capitals and with no discussion. You haven’t met my mother yet.
I carried on my thesis as I retook the original route and a leaden clarity painted itself in the distance: if goodness starts with the self, so does freedom. That’s why I have such trouble with women. You see? We men always fall into the same trap. We run away from women who are free, from women we instinctively fall in love with. But you should trust your instincts. Seriously. Always. Because it’s liberated women who’ll liberate you. While the others – the ones we cling to our whole lives because they don’t grant freedom even to themselves; who fold themselves away in a drawer in their houses; who imprison themselves in them, in their children; who don’t give themselves the freedom to have a good screw, a good meal, a life with some pleasure – well, they’re the ones who make us feel safe, like in prison, because deep down they imprison you with them. Inside them.
Isn’t it obvious? No one who doesn’t know freedom – who doesn’t grant it even to themselves – can grant it to someone else. Fine, well, I’ve just introduced you to my mother. She was one of those prison warden types.
I pictured her. One more antique in that big white house that threatened to fornicate with the woodworm or collapse in the next storm. The wind snorting in protest every time it heard the piano in her private salon, always off-key. The salon still gave me ghoulish nightmares, ever since she’d forced me to study music, only then to declare me incapable. I’d never been in there since. I remembered her saying it, scratching out the chords of Chopin’s Piano Concerto Number 2, surrounded by the relics she’d put up about him: photographs, paintings, souvenirs. According to her, they’d given her life meaning; she used to pray to them like they were gods unhooking themselves from the walls. It’s true: I always had nightmares about that corner of the house. Maybe because I always knew that, in that temple my mother had erected to the most important thing in her life, on her black, musical altar, I’d never find a photo of myself. She never played for me again. She only played for them.
When I arrived – and like Abbott had started narrating on page 43 – the distinguished Evelyn Rogers was sitting in the garden, and prepared one cheek to receive a kiss. This gesture was very her: asking first and giving – if ever – later. And this despite her spending all day busying herself with charity work: my father always said she was one of those liberal Republicans who felt guilty for being one. She tried to fool me with her serene, indifferent exterior but, just in time to halt the charge forth, I spotted that her upper lip was slightly pursed, as if she’d found the first thing to criticize that afternoon as she looked askance at the lawn.
I caught her off-guard: ‘Mother, you should have someone clear the leaves from the garden. You’ll have the neighbors getting angry.’
Who do you think I got my talent for gambling from?
My mother was a stupendous gambler. She could tell when someone was using her own tactics against her, so she limited herself to looking me in the eye. I went on, delighting in my first victory.
‘Remember last year? Mr. Picock scattering his leaves around your front door, to politely inform you that yours were starting to invade his garden? It was quite embarrassing.’
We looked at each other like a deer looking at a hunter just before getting a bullet in the forehead, trying to work out who at that moment was the prey. Maybe we’d remembered that, like every year since I turned ten, the task of clearing up the damn leaves was mine. But I was never around anymore. And neglecting the garden meant neglecting her.
The wind rose a little. The shutters of one of the windows banged a sentence on its wooden hinges. A strand of ashen hair crossed her beautiful, clean face, her un-made-up old age. We both looked up.
‘Why do you need to keep all this going, mother? Who comes here, anyway? Poor Hanna can’t cope with all the work in a big house like this, and it always needs more repairs.’
‘I’ll do them when we close up for the winter.’
‘You’ve been saying the same thing for years, mother… And it already is winter.’
‘No, it’s Thanksgiving, Daniel. And you’ve come for dinner. That’s your only duty to this house: to come for Thanksgiving and open your mouth only to eat.’
And she rose, vertebra by vertebra, from the colonial chair where she was wedged, only to disappear like an illusion behind a white net curtain. At dinner, she talked about the new season at the Metropolitan Opera. She found it suffocating.
Hanna served Long Island duck – which, just so as you know, is grander than all the other kinds of duck – then came black oysters on a bed of equally black pepper, then langoustine à la crème. She didn’t open the Spanish wine I’d brought her as a gift. She found a more appropriate option in her cellar. Shortly after being widowed, my mother confessed to us that she’d always found cooking turkey on this day to be absurdly vulgar.