Wordless, Fischbinder took me by the arm and led me to a window. We were evidently on a high floor, facing south and west, and we had a good view of the city. And it was New York, of course, and there were buildings I recognized – the Chrysler building, the Empire State – but there were also plenty of buildings that had not been there the last I looked.
I took it all in in silence, my mind racing yet standing still. I could feel myself struggling to adjust to this new reality. Because that’s what it was – reality. Seeing isn’t necessarily believing, not all the time, but I was seeing and I was believing. It was 1997 – for God’s sake, just three years short of the millennium – and Yugoslavia was five different countries, and I was sixty-four years old. I’d lived a mere thirty-nine years, but I was sixty-four all the same.
I said, “Why?”
“Why me? Well, why anybody, but I’m the person it happened to, and I can’t figure out why. Why did someone think it was a good idea to freeze me like a package of breaded shrimp and hide me away from the world for all these years?”
“Somebody has to,” I said.
“There was a letter,” he said, “but no one could read it. Then a man from Washington came to collect it. I suppose they found somebody there who could make it out, but they haven’t sent us word as to what it said, and somehow I don’t think they will.”
“Not unless things have changed a lot in the past twenty-five years,” I said.
“But I kept a copy.”
“They let you do that?”
“I’d already made a copy,” he said, “before they turned up, and I kept it. It seems to be some Germanic language, but it’s definitely not German.”
It was Old Norse, and I could see why they’d have had to take it to an expert to get it translated. I missed a few words here and there myself, but I got enough to make sense out of it, if you want to call it that.
“Harald Engstrom was not the man he pretended to be,” I said.
“Harald Engstrom? Was he the man-”
“Who gave me the brandy? Uh-huh. And he was supposed to be an activist in SKOAL, working to bring about the independence of Southern Sweden. But actually he was an agent provocateur of the Stockholm government.”
“He wanted to learn just how committed I was to the cause,” I went on, “and evidently I convinced him of the depth of my feelings, and that meant I was a dangerous man. He saw it as his patriotic duty to nullify me.” I read some more, shook my head. “But he couldn’t just slit my throat and leave it at that,” I said. “He was too Scandinavian.”
I nodded. “Too civilized. Too highly evolved. Too humane. No more death penalty, not even for enemies of the state. He couldn’t kill me, but he had to neutralize me, and that meant putting me on ice.”
“For twenty-five years?”
“Forever, if the folks in Union City hadn’t taken up the basement floor. But I don’t think it was supposed to go on that long. As soon as SKOAL was eliminated as a political force, he’d have had me thawed and returned to society. But I think something must have happened to him. Maybe he got hit by a bus. Or maybe some players on the other side decided that he was dangerous, and he’s tucked away in a meat locker somewhere, hovering at zero degrees. That would be poetic justice, wouldn’t it?”
“And the people who owned the house?”
“Engstrom’s friends?” I tapped the letter. “He mentions them. They didn’t even know about his little excavation project beneath the furnace room, let alone that they were harboring a low-temperature guest. So if anything happened to Engstrom, I would just stay there until hell froze over.” I frowned. “That’s the wrong metaphor, but you get the idea.”
“What I don’t get,” Laura Westerley said, “is why he was afraid of you. Something about Swedes and Danes?”
I gave her a very brief rundown of the aims of SKOAL and the grievances of the southern Swedes, and she seemed understandably incredulous. “It was never a movement with a whole lot of political credibility,” I said, “but neither was Slovenian separatism, for God’s sake, and they’ve got their own country now. My God, it just occurred to me. There wasn’t anything in the paper, not that I noticed, but it could have happened anytime in the past twenty-five years. But did it?”
“Was there an armed revolt in Sweden? Did the Danish Swedes break away?”
“It’s been pretty peaceful there,” Fischbinder said.
“Well, maybe it’ll stay that way,” I said forcefully, “and maybe it won’t. We’ll have to see. Where are my clothes?”
“My clothes. My striped shirt and khaki pants and whatever else I was wearing. I’m going home.”
They weren’t crazy about the idea. They’d have liked to keep me a few days for observation, and tried to talk me into staying overnight at least. But I wasn’t having any. I had a lot of new reality to adjust to, and I didn’t even know what most of it was. Twenty-five years! I wanted to go home and start catching up.
So I had my first shower in twenty-five years, standing a long while in the hot spray and hoping it would warm my bones. Then I got dressed – the clothes still fit me, as why shouldn’t they? – and signed myself out of the hospital. That’s an expression – in actual fact there was nothing to sign, and no bill to pay. And there wouldn’t be anything in the papers, either, about Rip Van Tanner’s emergence from Time’s magical icebox. One of the good things about being a known security risk is that the government can ring down a curtain of secrecy when it wants to. This time around, I have to say I appreciated it.
Outside, Fischbinder slipped me a twenty-dollar bill. “Cabs cost more than they used to,” he said. “But then so does everything else. If you have any medical problems, call me. For other problems, I can recommend someone for you to talk to.”
“It’s quite an emotional adjustment you’ve got to make. Some therapy might not be a bad idea. But the first thing you will want to do is eat a meal and get a good night’s sleep. But you don’t, do you?”
“Don’t sleep, according to what I read in your file. You get government disability for it, if I remember correctly.”
“A hundred and twelve dollars a month.”
“That won’t go too far these days, I’m afraid.”
“It never did,” I said. “I wonder. Do you suppose I’ll be able to sleep as a result of all this?”
“Of being frozen, you mean? I can’t think why. No proof that freezing restores the sleep center, not that I’m aware of. Still, there’s an irony there, wouldn’t you say?”
“For years you couldn’t sleep at all,” he said. “And then for all those years that’s all you did. Ironic.”
The cab cost more than it would have in 1972, but I still had change from Fischbinder’s twenty dollars, even after a good tip for the driver. He was from East Pakistan, which now seemed to be called Bangladesh, and he was evidently not the only one of his countrymen to have reached New York. There were plenty of Indo-Pak restaurants on the way home, and the streets were full of Asian and Latin American faces as they had never been before.
And that was the least of it.
The city was changed utterly. Whole blocks of buildings I’d been seeing my whole life, and which had still been there a few days ago in my personal time scheme, had been replaced by other buildings out of a science-fiction movie. And some places looked somehow the same while managing to be entirely different. Times Square, for instance. All the old wonderful signs were gone, but they’d been replaced by other more wonderful signs, and the result was still unmistakably Times Square.
I’m going to leave it at that. What’s the point in noting every change that caught my eye? The city had done what all cities do – although, being New York, it had done it faster and more dramatically than most. It had changed, it had evolved. And, from my particular vantage point (or disadvantage point, if you prefer) it had done it overnight.
My cab headed north on Broadway, past Lincoln Center (which was still there, thank God!) and across Seventy-second Street. As the blocks passed and the meter clicked away and Hassan Ali chattered away about the adventure of driving a taxi in this extraordinary city, I felt my anxiety level starting to climb. Because every turn of the wheels and every click of the meter brought me closer to home.
And what was I going to find there?
I had lived for years in four and a half rent-controlled rooms on the fifth floor of a tenement on 107th Street west of Broadway. And, freshly defrosted and out of the hospital, I was blithely returning to my home, as I had always returned to it after each adventure in foreign lands. I had always come home, and it was always there waiting for me.
But what made me think it would be there now?
I stopped the cab at Ninety-sixth Street, paid the driver, and walked the rest of the way. Eleven blocks, just over a half a mile. I passed some familiar stores and some unfamiliar ones. I didn’t spot any familiar faces.
Would my building still be standing?
No reason to assume so. There were new buildings strewn all along Broadway, and whatever had been there before was gone forever. From what I could see there had been less change on the side streets, but that was no guarantee that I wouldn’t find an empty lot where I used to live, or a thirty-story high-rise.
Even if the building remained, that didn’t mean I still lived there. After all, I’d been away for twenty-five years. Sooner or later even the most patient and understanding of landlords would tire of waiting for the rent. God knows who would be living in the apartment that used to be mine. God knows what had become of my books, my correspondence, of everything I owned.
And what about Minna?
I stopped dead in my tracks. I hadn’t thought of Minna in – well, in twenty-five years, of course, but, more to the point, in the couple of hours since I’d returned to consciousness. And now, having thought of her, I could think of nothing else.
Minna had been six years old when I first encountered her in the basement of a house in Vilna, the capital of the Lithuanian Soviet Socialist Republic. She was at the time the idolized captive of two dotty old ladies, who believed her to be the sole living descendant of Mindaugas, who had been in his turn the sole king of an independent Lithuania for a little while back in the thirteenth century. Minna’s captors saw her as a monarch in training, the logical choice as queen when Lithuania achieved her independence. Meanwhile, they kept her hidden away so no harm could come to her.
I got her the hell out of there and installed her temporarily in my place on 107th Street, fully intending to find a home for her, but Minna made it very clear that 107th Street was home and she didn’t want to leave it. I took her to Canada one time and almost lost her forever in the Cuban pavilion at the Montreal Expo, but aside from that she’s been happily ensconced in my apartment ever since, picking up languages from the building’s polyglot tenants, tricking my occasional female companions into taking her to the Central Park Zoo, and picking up a fair education without ever crossing the threshold of an actual school.