Fragments from 'Salman! The Musical'

From time to time the news cycle offers up an event of such import and complexity that it can only be comprehended through the medium of musical theater. This week resident composer Ben Greenman examines the tragic unraveling of a famous author's marriage.

[SALMAN RUSHDIE is at a table in an Atlanta chophouse. He is sitting alone and talking to himself.]

SALMAN

Perhaps I'll start off with a salad

Then maybe a bowl of soup

For dessert, a hot fudge sundae

Or pecan pie or melon coupe

In between those two endpoints

Comes the entrée or main dish

From the looks of this very large menu

I can have anything that I wish

So maybe I will have some pasta

Maybe I will have a steak

I will order from the waiter.

It will come. I will partake.

A restaurant's a funny thing

You ask for food and wait for it

The menu is a type of scripture

Gastronomic holy writ

By the stars I do declare

I see the waiter over there.

[It is not the waiter. It is a busboy. He refills SALMAN RUSHDIE's water glass from a pitcher with lemon slices. SALMAN RUSHDIE gulps down his water. The busboy refills it. Again, SALMAN RUSHDIE drinks it as if parched. After a third time, the busboy hurries away, disconcerted.]

SALMAN

Where is the waiter?

I demand service.

Now's better than later.

I'm feeling quite nervous.

[Finally, THE WAITER arrives to take SALMAN RUSHDIE's order. He is very young. It might be his first week on the job.]

WAITER

Well, sir, well, yes, well, alright

What can I get for you tonight?

[SALMAN grabs the WAITER's shirt.]

SALMAN

Okay, I will admit my fear

Of sitting here

In solitude

I cannot bear to eat alone

Can I postpone

Your leaving, dude?

Come sit with me, please, dear waiter

Indulge my verbal promiscuity

If you do as I say, dear waiter

I'll leave a ginormous gratuity

[SALMAN points to the chair. The WAITER sits.]

SALMAN

I have a story

A story of lives

A story of husbands

A story of wives

A story of cultures

Clashing and meshing.

This water with lemon

Is highly refreshing.

[The WAITER signals to a busboy. The water glasses are refilled. SALMAN, still looking lonely, motions to the WAITER to drink water with him. The WAITER complies. They each drink three glasses.]

SALMAN

Some years ago I took a wife

I pledged myself to her for life

It didn't work out quite as planned

I unhappily untook her hand

Within the year I wed again

Refilled my spirit's fountain pen

She was a writer, just like me

That marriage dissolved rapidly

Four years went by, then wife the third

Appeared to me; my heart was spurred

This time, seven years went by

We couldn't quite see eye to eye

I tell you these three horror stories

To bring you closer to the glories

Of my fourth wife, whom I adore

And have done since two thousand four.

Her name is Padma Parvati Lakshmi

In Sanskrit her first name means "lotus."

I loved her, you see, like a staunch employee

But now I've been given my notice.

It is the best of times

It is the worst of times

That's from Tale of Two Cities, of course

On the one hand, I loved her. My heart knew no bounds.

On the other hand, now it's been bound by divorce.

[THE WAITER opens his mouth to speak.]

WAITER

Uh, sir, I need,

Well, sir, see, we'd...

[SALMAN RUSHDIE stills him with a hand.]

SALMAN

Yes, yes

I think I understand

You recognize my face

You wonder

Why I would descend

Upon this modest place

Well, we would come here every week

By we I mean the wife and I

We'd laugh, we'd eat, we'd laugh some more

I can't believe she's said goodbye

A Booker, two Whitbreads, a James Tate Black

The Kurt Tucholsky Prize in Sweden

All of these honors have come to me

But it's wifely love that I'm needin'

[THE WAITER stands.]

WAITER

Yeah, well, uh, but,

It's not just what...

[The hand of SALMAN RUSHDIE stills him again.]

SALMAN

This story is rich with twists and reverses

The heart's aspiration, the heart's demolition

I'll reflect on it in my newly penned foreword

To the Satanic Verses collectors' edition

The fatwa may be gone

But the wife, she is gone too

That bothers me tremendously

Dear waiter, does it bother you?

WAITER

Uh, no, sir, well, see, the thing is,

I really need to take a whiz

I know you're sad and hope you don't get sadder

But I desperately need to go empty my bladder

[The WAITER exits briskly. SALMAN's phone rings. It is an iPhone.]

SALMAN

Oh, joy, my cellular

I can tell it's her

Padma, Padma, I'm answering now

Tell me that you won't renege on our vow

[It is not Padma calling on then iPhone. It is the top Al-Qaeda lieutenant AYMAN AL-ZAWAHRI. He's angry about SALMAN RUSHDIE's recent knighting by the British royalty.]

AYMAN AL-ZAWAHRI

Listen here: I hear tell

You were knighted in Britain

Given high honors

For what you have written

You know what they say

Bitten once and shy twice

Our response will be violent

And pure and precise

This is no joking matter

Your culture depraves

It's all in my speech

About the Indian slaves

You may think it wrong

It's not yours to decide

That is our threat

Unless the knighthood's denied

[AYMAN AL-ZAWAHRI hangs up. SALMAN RUSHDIE stares at the phone.]

SALMAN

That is so freakin' weird

That guy just appeared

On my telephone line

To denounce and malign

And threaten and lecture

I cannot conjecture

Just how that occurred

I can't believe what I heard

As soon as that waiter

Comes back to the table

I'll recount the story

As best I am able

I'll tell it with gusto

I'll be dashing and deft

And then I will leave

And go watch Top Chef

[SALMAN waits for the WAITER. THE WAITER isn't coming back.]

THE END

Ben Greenman is an editor at the New Yorker and the author of several books of fiction. His latest book, A Circle is a Balloon and Compass Both, was recently published.

Previously: Fragments from 'Jeannette! The Musical'

Bonus: Do you love Ben Greenman's musicals as much as we do? Would you like to see them performed live on stage? Of course you do and would! Well, here's your chance: Tuesday, July 17th, Greenman's Fragments will be part of The Rejection Show's Music Series. The event takes place at 8 P.M. at Ace of Clubs, 9 Great Jones Street. See you there!