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.]
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.]
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.]
Well, sir, well, yes, well, alright
What can I get for you tonight?
[SALMAN grabs the WAITER's shirt.]
Okay, I will admit my fear
Of sitting here
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.]
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.]
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.]
Uh, sir, I need,
Well, sir, see, we'd...
[SALMAN RUSHDIE stills him with a hand.]
I think I understand
You recognize my face
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.]
Yeah, well, uh, but,
It's not just what...
[The hand of SALMAN RUSHDIE stills him again.]
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?
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.]
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.]
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.]
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.]
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!