It's brilliant. The Bruneians have bought Yankee Stadium. The team went bust last year-- it was the boredom. There's nothing at issue in baseball, face it. Where's the suspense? It's only a game. Today we expect more from our entertainment: love and death, fire and blood. Lives at stake. Who wouldn't get tired of going out to see people in the same old outfits going through the moves? Fans did, even the most committed ones. The times demand narrative. We do! If the Yankees can't supply it, someone better will.
The team failed and with it, commerce in the city: restaurants and hotels went under and with them all those providers who brought you baseball caps and Yankees mugs and diamonds and furs, filthy pictures and china Statues of Liberty and high end leather jackets that rich foreigners paid too much for because it's important to travel but even more important to take something home. Like dominoes falling in a Japanese stadium, businesses went under, threatening the infrastructure, and the Sultan's advisors saw the opportunity and pounced. Face it. Without the revenue from Brunei your metropolis would be a tent city in a parking lot. All praise to the Sultan.
Unlike the national imagination that stopped short at baseball, the Sultan had a dream. A vision that would beggar Kubla Khan. It's enough to point to the models the Bruneians sent ahead to prepare us for the offer, and the projections they sent when we refused and they tripled it. Magnificent, even in the miniature it took the imperialarchitects weeks to complete. Imagine it now. Before the deal was even struck, advance teams took down the stands and leveled two miles surrounding for the armature and the diorama, as well as excavating for parking. While New Yorkers made a desperate last-minute pitch for all-American backers, crews moved in to complete UNIVERSE, the Bruneian Mall of the World, which opens tonight at the outskirts of the bankrupt city.
For months, UNIVERSION has telecast the preparations to a rapt audience of billions. We all watched the story unfold. Would UNIVERSE be done in time to save our bacon? Would we be among the first to see it? The suspense is unbearable and remember, we live for suspense.
We have been waiting for months for this day.
We don't know it yet, but Ahmed Shah has been waiting all his life.
Ah, but when the time is right we'll see it on TV We have been watching from our homes and the luckiest of us are watching on the monitors lining the way in from the parking lots where we have been waiting for so long. When we first catch sight of Ahmed, it will be on TV. And the rest? Soon. We will see everything soon. The grand opening is almost upon us. It's today
Last night at midnight the Sultan's emissary and the mayor of New York City broke the seal on the main gates, although only the Sultan's party will enter there. The thousand special delegates are entering through designated portals. The Sultan's dream is so vast that they won't reach the Grand Glass Escalator at the heart of UNIVERSE much before noon. It will take hours for them to find their places inside the ceremonial dome-- and longer still for the rest of us to filter into the rotunda. The best seats will be gone! What if we get stuck behind some overweight New Yorker who's too big to see over or peek around!
Meanwhile the privileged, the invited delegates-- Ahmed!-- pad happily along miles of Bokhara runners, gasping at the sights of the surrounding diorama. They pass through exquisite landscapes wheregreat moments of history bloom like gaudy flowers-- everything from the fall of the Tower of Babel to the showiest nuclear explosions replicated in polyvinyl resin, a magnificent panoply that beggars Singapore's previously renowned Tiger Balm Gardens. Excited by the World's Fair with its glittering visions of the future? Regard the monstroplex!
In RVs and trailers, in massed sleeping bags and hastily erected tents outside UNIVERSE, the public waits. The crowd has been gathering for weeks. We want to be first! Every one of us!
But none so much as Ahmed Shah, who is here on a sacred mission. Ordinary people wait like sheep. Through a combination of luck and trickery, Ahmed has made his way inside.
To survive our lives we must divine the story of our lives, and this is Ahmed's.
Never mind how he infiltrated the throng of dignitaries at the A-list metal detectors while we were forced to wait. The gold brocade robe says it all. The diamond set into his forehead tells the world that Ahmed Shah is special. Expensive forgeries certify him as the delegate of an obscure but potentially useful oil-rich country. Let the hoi polloi wait submissively. Ahmed is in the first wave of delegates entering the monstroplex.
And when the ceremonies begin, Ahmed will ... well, never mind. When you spend your life plotting, you know the best laid plans are the ones you keep secret.
At twilight the heads of both states-- Brunei and Manhattan--will meet in the rotunda to cut the ribbon and declare this perspex-and-steel Nirvana open to the world. The Sultan's monstroplex outstrips everything humanity has ever devised for profit and pleasure. The future is yesterday. Welcome to UNIVERSE.
As a palliative to Native Americans-- New Yorkers to you-- the ceremonies will begin with a ritual reenactment of Yankee baseball triumphs. Trained entertainers will re-create the Yankees' last game--before the cutting of the ribbon.
Salman Rushdie is throwing out the first ball.
Ahmed has been waiting all his life for this moment.
So, he thinks, has Rushdie. He never dreamed it would take so long, or that he would be so old, and he is old; last September Ahmed Shah turned ninety. So, of course, did Rushdie, which makes them kindred.
They are, after all, in this together. Hunter and hunted. Instrument and destiny, for every great pursuit demands the cooperation of both parties. For every Jean Valjean there is a Javert and if either died the other would be desolate. Imagine Ahmed and Rushdie, the perfection of pursuit and flight. Neither exists without the other.
Ahmed has pursued Rushdie through war and peace, mind you, through riots and confusion, through the nights and days and over the years. He has spent his adult life on this and he's come close, he has! But never close enough. Is it fate that steps in Ahmed's way at the last minute, or some suppressed will to fail? Ahmed would tell you that he has spent all his money and all his strength running toward this encounter. Once he got within firing range but the rented pistol failed; once he saw Rushdie leaving a party for Amy Tan and Stephen King, but his quarry's entourage people crowded him out before Ahmed could whip the silk thugee's cord around Rushdie's neck and tighten the knot. For years he was insulated by fame, but people forget. Like Ahmed's physical powers in his ninety-first year, Rushdie's fame has dwindled.
In a way, Ahmed feels sorry for him. Lo how the mighty, eh, Salman?
How odd, to be so committed to the mission and yet so fond of the man. After all, they have a lot in common. Together yet stupendously separated by accidents of birth and fame, Ahmed and Rushdie have written dozens of books. They have outlived wives and lovers and numerous exes; all this Ahmed knows because he stays informed;he watches TV; he reads the papers and has Meena print new bulletins from the Internet. In their lifetime he and Rushdie have outlived Madonna and Brad Pitt and most world rulers; they have outlived, in fact, everything but the fatwah. Rushdie's fault, for offending Allah with that profane bestseller, what was it called? Fatwah made Rushdie celebrated and it made him rich while Ahmed's poor little book went out of print before it ever made it into the stores. Rushdie must die, it is kismet.
How sad, that none of his women have understood this sacred charge.
"Don't," Meena begged only last night, clinging to the golden robe to keep Ahmed from leaving, "You have me to think of."
Lovely, Meena. His fourth wife loves him even though she is only twenty-three. Leaving at dawn, he told the story of his life. "Before anything, I have my mission."
Which brings Ahmed into UNIVERSE, surging past the metal detectors as though it is fated. In fact it is fated. What Allah ordains, Ahmed will execute, and if he dies in the act then he will bypass Mecca and be lifted into Paradise to walk in the garden with Allah, hand in hand.
Better yet, when Ahmed has done what he's waited so long to do, when he has killed Salman Rushdie, the Ayatollah will reward him with one million dollars.
Justice. Who hopes for more? Rushdie's outrageous screed overshadowed Ahmed's poetic tribute to the Prophet, it smothered it in the cradle. Rushdie got famous while Ahmed's Sacred Verses was stillborn. Rushdie got paid for his obscenity while Ahmed paid dearly, starting with the cost of the printing. Ah, but once he is dead and Ahmed is paid they will be even.
He is so fixed on his mission that the eight-hour trek into the heart of the monstroplex passes like minutes. Carpeted sidewalks move delegates along through the diorama that surrounds UNIVERSElike the rings around Saturn. They glide through the Fall of Carthage and the lifelike veldt and the Rise of Industrialism to the inner circle of synthetic jungle that gives onto the megamall proper with its magic, glassy territory of a hundred thousand shops. There are plentiful snacks for the honored guests in the monstroplex, chaises for those who tire and tented facilities for every conceivable bodily need. Lovely attendants provide massages for the weary. The hours pass in a heartbeat, unless it is a lifetime. Oh but the crystal flowers, the plastic trees along the way are distracting to the pilgrims, the way stations where perfumes fill the air, the transparent vaulted ceiling! It is magnificent. Music floods the space, Rimsky-Korsakov booming as fountains play and perfume blossoms in the air at the glassy, convex margins. Ahmed would like to linger but he's given up too much to come this far. The professional ambitions he's set aside to pursue his quarry, the children he's outlived, the company of women ...
And that's another thing. While Rushdie swans around at celebrity affairs on the arms of attractive popsies who, as the man ages, get younger and younger, Ahmed has lost every woman he ever had: first sweet Mrinal and then Lakshme and his pearly American girl Stephanie and dark-haired Sujeeta and only yesterday the last wife he'll probably ever find, plump Meena with her sad almond eyes. Oh, his lovers and wives all said different things when they packed the children and left but Ahmed knows what they meant:
You said you loved me but all you care about is this Rushdie thing.
Crafty, sacrilegious Rushdie takes all, leaving nothing for Ahmed. One million dollars. Who wouldn't want to kill him?
Who knew it would take so long! When the fatwah came down Ahmed accepted the Ayatollah's mandate without question. He has spent his life trying to discharge it. Not that he hasn't come close. That time in London, twice in New York. Fans, lovers, groupies, TV-- the trappings of fame get between him and his mission. He hates Rushdie for being famous. He hates him for his cars and hiswomen but what Ahmed hates most about Salman Rushdie is his own obscurity.
Ah but tonight, Rushdie is a sitting target.
Ahmed is ready. His preparations are exquisite: the blue and white baseball uniform Meena hand sewed, hidden by the golden mantle he chose for the long trip inside, the cleated shoes with poison transfused into every cleat and finally the sleek, undetectable weapon-- a glass kris! Access to the dugout? Don't ask. As the Yankees strut out in their quaint uniforms Ahmed doffs the robe and slips onto the bench like one of the team, reliving the glory days for an audience of billions. When "The Star-Spangled Banner" ends and the band begins the Bruneian anthem, when the Yankees trot onto the field and Rushdie hauls back to throw the first ball, Ahmed will take advantage of the festivity and stab him.
But there is something funny going on.
Ahmed feels it before he comprehends it. A change in the air. He is aware of it before the band begins its medley of themes from the Bruneian anthem. A difference. A deviation from the expected. Most ceremonies go as scripted but something new is happening.
We are aware of it, watching on TV or climbing to sky-box seats in the rotunda. The hell of it is, we'll never agree on what happened. Multiply any event by the number of witnesses and you won't come close to the number of diverging stories. There is the event, yes.
There is what we bring to it.
Then there is what we make of it.
Add to that our weakness for worst case scenarios, because narrative is fueled by our collective paranoia.
You bet there's something funny going on. If it wasn't, where would we find the story that enriches our days? And in a continuum this bizarre, in a world where a Rushdie gets rich and famous and an artist like Ahmed is discarded, in a society where commerce rules and nothing you expect can be expected, it could be almost anything. Today's story could end in:Armageddon; as the monstroplex opens, leaders of twin states nobody's even heard of simultaneously push the red button that starts the war; above the great dome the sky blossoms ...
Invasion by space aliens; the transparent panels that enclose the rotunda snap open like a giant iris to reveal ...
Revolution, a million valet parking attendants and decorators and groundspeople take up their weapons to overthrow the rich ...
Economic conquest: the Sultan of Brunei hands an enormous check to the acting U.S. president and buys us, U., S. and A ... .
Are you afraid yet? Do you want to be? Play with the possibilities. Turn the ratchet one more time. Today's story may end with:
Extermination: with the leaders of the known world assembled for the grand opening all the vents snap shut and yellow vapor pervades the amphitheater, thousands of the unsuspecting willingly assembled for the ultimate genocide ...
Subsumption by a superpower none of the delegates and weekend shoppers even imagined existed ...
Now, this, Ahmed could have lived with. Allah's emissary shooting into the arena like a meteor to forgive Rushdie.
Or could it be all in Ahmed's mind? Or all in your mind, or mine? Remember, the fatwah was called off decades ago, although Ahmed doesn't know it. And remember, the Yankees tanked because there are no love affairs and no murders in baseball games, there is no story: one more proof that to survive our lives, we must have narrative. We build stories like traps to capture incident and turn it into Event.
And where there is no narrative, we have to supply it. For every story, there are a thousand possible endings. The two most obvious:
It was only a dream.
It's all in Ahmed's mind.
Rather, it is in yours, because for every observer there is a differentinterpretation, and when all accounts are settled, this particular event is what you make of it.
You can make whatever you want.
As it turns out we were all there when it happened, half a million of us, swarming into the rotunda. We saw the encounter between Ahmed and his target. There isn't time or space to tell you what we made of it-- there was too much going on. There are too many of us. Too many interpretations. To say nothing of yourself, along with all the baggage you bring to this.
To simplify, let's stick with Ahmed.
Rushdie is behind the velvet ropes, waiting for the signal. His lips are trembling; he has grown old in the service, the pursued, who--face it!-- was overexposed to the point where he has become invisible. Except to Ahmed.
Time is suspended.
It's the moment in the story when anything could happen.
In fact, something even stranger happens.
It is both stranger and harder to understand, at least in this version, and remember this is Ahmed's version, Rushdie-specific and not pertaining to you, for this is Ahmed's story.
The teams come out and the throng applauds. Rushdie trots out onto the field, ancient but spry in his favorite outfit. At the sight of him every muscle in Ahmed's groin tightens but the applause trails off and the music fades.
The emcee's voice fails along with it. "Who's that?" he squeaks, confused.
Rushdie throws his arms wide-- to the Ayatollah? to Allah himself or to fickle fate or to us, the public that's forgotten him?
The collective breath rushes out. Who are you?
"It is I." He grabs the hand mike and the words boom, the forgotten man crying to an unheeding heaven. "It is I, Salman Rushdie."
"You know," he shouts in a failing voice, whirling until his scrawny arms fly out from his sides like scarves on a dervish. His lips move but only Ahmed hears the dying fall ... "Satanic Verses? Rushdie, that awful book? The fatwah? You know."
Only Ahmed is listening.
On the quaint old baseball diamond, there are two events unfolding. Ahmed's. Ours, which is somewhat bigger. Figures at Rushdie's back play out the larger drama of life and death and finance and speculation as U.S. Marines march out under the flag, platoon after platoon of them in close-order drill, with each platoon circling gorgeously under its red guidon in a formation more intricate and beautiful than any thing devised for the fabled Dallas Cowgirls ...
U.S. Marines march out and surround the velvet ropes that mark the Sultan's place and in a silent coup subdue the Sultan's bodyguards ...
And the Sultan himself is under military arrest, oh, yes he is raging and-- mirabile!--the monstroplex and properties surrounding are returned to the City of New York in a bloodless coup, a gift to Manhattanites from the combined forces of our saviors the financial giants: Disney, Bertelsmann and Microsoft.
The band segues into "The Star-Spangled Banner."
While on the abandoned baseball diamond, Salman Rushdie dithers, forgotten.
Well, almost forgotten.
"Allah bismallah," Ahmed cries. It's time! With upraised kris he breaks through the crowd and with all the strength left in his ninety-year-old body, he lunges at Rushdie.
His mark's eyes grow wide with excitement as Ahmed bears down on him. He beams, delighted. "You!"
Caught in mid-lunge, Ahmed is transfixed, thunderstruck and rattled to the foundations. "You." He has waited all his life for this moment.
"Yes!" Rushdie wags his head in delight at being recognized.
"You look just like all your pictures." Ahmed falls on him and they grapple. Never mind that the fatwah was called off dozens of years ago. Never mind that Ahmed is the last man standing who failed to get the word. This is fated, fated. "Yes."
Locked in a mortal embrace, Rushdie sighs as if to a lover, "I thought you'd never come."