Who, or what, caused the explosion at Staehl? Everyone has an opinion, and Tad hears them all. He hears whispering coming from behind doors as he walks down Staehl’s hallways. He hears professors speaking out with their booming and confident voices. He hears students arguing about it on the lawn, the cleaning women gesticulating with their hands in Spanish, the president speaking in an auditorium.
But nobody knows.
Nobody knows, so everybody blames. It’s security’s fault. It’s the administration’s fault. No, the town—they harbor animosity towards Staehl because Staehl pays no taxes. Wrong. It’s the terrorists, of course. What better target than one of America’s most venerated schools? What about that family—the law suit? Which one? You think so, really? Why not? These days.
Hey, maybe that young guy who comes around from ITS. Yeah, one of them.
Tad carries yellow cables from room to room, connecting computers, e-mail accounts, gossip.
Dan felt the bullet only on the coldest, dampest days. Then he would serve himself up with top-shelf whiskey, on the rocks. And soon the pain, like anything else he willed these days, would disappear.
Dan was the greatest and the happiest of all magicians. He had helped build an empire on his ancestors’ soil, an empire in which their former conquerors, the Europeans, came to wipe out their souls with vices. Dan controlled them now; he led them around by the twins scents of money and alcohol. They were nothing without him and his power.
Dan liked being king of that world, because he know it was not real. He could make mistakes in it; play the fool, play tricks on them, or on himself. The casino was a wild and free experiment, a second mortgage on his life. A fantasy he was living in place of his more painful and distant authentic life. Inviting Tad and his wife back to Minnesota was a way for him to reconcile these two lives.
—Look at you, says Dan, surveying Tad in his T-shirt and jeans from head to toe. —Have some respect for yourself. You’re an Indian, man. You’re the boss here.
—Come on, we’ll fix you up with some nice clothes. Casino style.
Julie comes along. For the first time she can remember, she is just coming along. By evening they are casino-dressed. Some fraction of Tad’s blood is stirred. He feels good in his shiny black suit and silver-buckled string tie. Feels handsome. As if he’s stepped into a new life.
The casino lights pour over him, lighting up chance, all that is meaningless in life. Julie holds his hand, then lets go. The lights that empower him diminish her. She becomes pale, her hair colorless. The little make-up she wears goes unnoticed. Someone blocks her with a plastic glass of champagne. She looks at Tad and Dan, who have already half-finished theirs. She feels strangely that there is a part of Tad she doesn’t know. A flashing resemblance between him and his uncle sends a little shiver down her back. Then he touches her, and she skips a breath. —What? —Nothing. Interesting place, isn’t it? —I guess you could say that. —Come on, let’s try a little blackjack.
The investigation turned up half a dozen names, each of them foreign-born, on renewable visas: a couple of students, post-docs, a janitor. Tad knew three of them in passing. One was from Lithuania.
Staehl’s officials combed through thousands of e-mail messages on the university’s main server, reading exchanges that might harbor an illicit subtext. Certain gems, such as this one, gave them palpitations:
Come home soon. The world is uncertain, and we fear something bad may happen. Grandmother sends her greetings, and hopes to see you again before she greets Allah, praised be his name.
The fast begins in two days.
Your loving family,
Mother, Father, Elie, and Abdul
Fatima was questioned by the FBI for three hours before they allowed her to apply for an extended visa, which never came. She flew home to visit her family in Jordan at the end of the semester, but was denied re-entry to the United States after the holidays.
Something, thinks Tad. Something is buzzing. Over there. No, closer. Behind the slot machine? Does Julie hear it? Hear what? Never mind. He reaches for a few more quarters deep in his pants pocket. A vibration tickles the hair on the back of his hand. It’s the cell phone. He drops it once, picks it up, has another sip from his martini, then unfolds it.
A scratchy noise, like cellophane being bunched.
He folds the phone back into its little rounded shape, is ready to put it back in his pocket, when the vibration starts again.
—Tad, hi it’s Jurgis. Jurgis Seveikus. I’m not so good. No, I’ve not had an accident. I’m healthy—not a problem. But your country— I’m having problem with. They are going to call you, too. They think we are terrorists. Why? Because I was involved with religious group in Lithuania. Group of people with many religions—Catholic, Orthodox, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Lithuanian Pagan—we just meet to talk and have wine. We send e-mail to people all over the world. Some of them do not like us, what we do. So we forget about them. But they don’t forget us. Perhaps they are causing trouble—saying I’m on their side to destroy Western culture. They are crazy! But your government keeps talking to me. They want to know everyone I know here—who I am friends with and why.
—Wait Jurgis. This is crazy.
—Yes, it is.
—What can I do?
—I don’t know. I am trying to be honest but it’s not working.
—Okay. I’m a little hazy right not. I’ll call you tomorrow. I’m in Minnesota playing slot machines. At my uncle’s casino.
—No, another one. I’ll call you back, Jurgis. Tomorrow. Yes. Goodbye.
There stood Dan: a little pudgy about the waist, a new vertical wrinkle in the center of his forehead, but otherwise confident, talkative, and fairly rich.
And there stood Tad beside him: newly dressed, lightheaded, inhabiting a limbo that neither he nor Dan could understand. For Tad was not a part of Dan’s world, nor was he a part of his Uncle Frank’s. Tad’s world consisted of endless wires, connections that led from New Haven to every country on earth; then to the heartland of America, to the ghosts of his ancestors. He was both master and servant of these connections. He mastered them with technological skill, helping a very international group at Staehl read each other’s thoughts with the speed of an e-mail. And Tad’s connections mastered him because they left him no peace, no anchor of place, no unified history. He was, after all, simply American: a hybrid of skin tones and speech tones, a soul making life up as it went along, like the rest of America. And yet he was drawn to every deep corner of his family history, because in those vague histories he found corners of himself, and they rang truer than Tad the Honor Student, Tad the Basketball Star, or Tad the Employee of the Quarter.
Together the two of them, Dan and Tad, moved about the casino. Some could see they were related, a certain line in their profiles and way of walking. Others wondered what could have brought them together.