DANA NEACȘU este doctor în filosofie, lector de drept la COLUMBIA LAW SCHOOL, din New York, profesor adjunct la BARNARD COLLEGE – Columbia University, dar și dâmbovițeană de pe malurile Ialomiței…
Something Went Really Wrong
By Jordan Muncz
Instead of Forward
If you’re afraid of what you might learn, stop reading now – this isn’t for you. Furthermore, I have no proof. It was quick and mostly quiet and by 5AM all that was left was the sound of helicopters leaving the city. Anyone that might have heard anything, gunshots, screams, sirens, wouldn’t have gotten very far into it – internet searches yielded error messages, and there was nothing on TV but the usual: gang shootouts, potheads causing traffic jams on the GWB and Columbia University sprucing up their campus for graduation.
I’m here to tell you, the military dumped sick people into the Hudson River. Call the Pentagon and they’ll reassure you, they’ve heard the rumors, but isn’t it ridiculous? And they’re not in the business of spreading crazy rumors. The newspapers will do the same, exactly the same…
After you read what I’ve written, you…, well you might think I’m crazy, or jealous, trying to take down academia because I’m not Ivy League. I have my opinions, but that’s not what this is about. It’s just where it happened.
What this is about: people disappeared that night. I did what research I could. I called the NYPD but when I told them I had a blog, and it wasn’t the New York Times, they could neither confirm nor deny “the rumors”.
Like I told you, I can’t prove anything, but there are facts. Ollie Kun-He is missing. His father is owner of The Founding Father’s Burger Joint, where the explosion at the center of the mayhem took place. I tried contacting his parents but Ms. Kun-He’s answering machine says she’s travelling in Korea indefinitely.
So, a day that won’t live in history. The few media outlets that heard about what might have been happening didn’t run the story. Then there’s the floating head. „American Beauty” on Instagram and the story is that ISIS is claiming it. Right. They infiltrated NYC to put a hit on one guy, if you want to believe those opportunists…
Of course my book has a hero. He’s a security guard. I know his family, well, I used to know them. After what happened, when I asked for news about „Tony,” his job, his new girlfriend, my friend, his uncle, replied „Tony who.”
Finally, don’t try to find me because I’m in hiding. Anyway, it will be hard to find me because you don’t know my gender, age, not much of anything. At least I hope, because there are people looking for me who know how to look.
In my book you’ll meet an assassin. I’ve called him John Rambo, nice name, no? Doesn’t matter, what does matter is that he’s real and at large. General Pistone has a clear interest in him, as does Congresswoman Calder. This should be enough for you to understand what’s at stake for me or my future family, if I live long enough to have one.
So, how does that sound to you? A crazy person with no evidence telling you the world you live in is worse than you thought. Still, I’m writing so I have to imagine there are readers curious enough. But if that’s you, please consider this a coming of age book. Your own coming of age.
The wind was causing the fog to dissipate. The door in the pedestal crept opened again and for a moment a hauling noise could be heard. Then the wind was nearly calm and the shadow of a man became visible. He raised the collar of his suede jacket, and covered his eyes with a pair of sun glasses. He had to use both hands to accomplish the task. He looked around and after a moment of thorough cognizance, Knowlton stepped out.
He almost tripped but deftly avoided the fallen blond girl. She moaned and her head rose. He stopped reluctantly. Recognizing Sam, Knowlton kneeled and put his hand under her head paternally. He took his kerchief from his breast pocket. Something white, perhaps foam, seemed to have dried out at the corner of her mouth. He tried to clean it off. Unable, he asked Sam whether Brian, her husband, had been contacted.
She could not make eye contact and started shaking. He took off his cashmere wrap and covered her body. A speck of blood dripped from his nose but falling on the sleeve of his coat it remained unnoticed. He offered to contact 911 rather than Brian, and told her everything would be just fine.
Sam started moaning quite loudly. Unsure of his options, he attempted to stand up. He was unsteady. Sam moaned louder and louder. He needed to go and ask for help. She had to be admitted to St. Luke’s Hospital, yards away from the campus. He took a few steps only to realize he was walking with a limp. Changing directions he walked up the stairs towards Low Hall.
By the entrance bank a crowd of women appeared from behind Low’s colonnades. Knowlton stopped, understanding happenstance ruled that night. He stabilized himself staring ahead. They circled him as if smelling his odor and like dogs recognizing their ilk, they fast retreated. Confused by their retreat, Knowlton watched them as some were tripping, while others were standing and moving at uneven speed like marionettes in pajamas whose strings suddenly came loose.
Knowlton could not repress his thought that their non-choreographed moves looked at times almost Sylphidic, had it not been for the noise. Their noise was all encompassing and made up for their meek appearance. It resembled a shrill, a great formidable cry of anger and despair, a deep, loud ’Oh-o-o-o-oh!’ Then it went humming on like the reverberation of a bell. Any human heart would have jumped with terror. The noise they had made came briefly to a halt. For a brief a moment they looked lost. And when it restarted it resembled the echo of their previous racket.
Knowlton approached the door and attempted to open it, when they started banging in the thick glass panels next to it. He froze in place.
Some janitorial staff inside Low must have heard the noise and turned up the light. The harsh light attracted them as their moving hill ceased rolling down the stairs and they all came toward the light. Others adjoined. On top of the stairs, on the flat surface, they morphed into a mob seemingly unaware of Knowlton’s presence.
The janitor must have also called a security guard and the security guard finally arrived. He nodded politely at Professor Knowlton. Perhaps desiring to appear in charge, the guard approached the pajama mob and aware of their sleepless plight he offered to bring them to the dormitory. Probably, he thought they had been misinformed about its location. While he was talking into his walkie-talkie, explaining the terrible job someone else had done, they surrounded him. The guard was smiling at the janitor who had opened the entrance door ajar, for him to come in. The guard did not have a chance to come through. The mob gulped down his individual energy and commenced digesting it. His bitten body collapsed momentarily only to overcome convulsions and semi-erect he joined the mob.
Professor Knowlton slipped inside Low. The heavy door slammed behind him. The janitor, paralyzed by what he saw, was motionless. Knowlton quietly avoided him and took the elevator up. A ray of light coming through the fog from the 4th floor wing indicated he was a senior university faculty member. His office was near the provost’s.
There he collapsed on his leather couch. He stared at the ceiling and closed his eyes. He looked for his phone and he found it in his pants. He dialed it and then reclined until his head lay down uncomfortably on top of something hard: his book. Freshly out of print it smelled of ink. He read its title aloud:
“Anabelle Sancho: The Real Hero of the Battle of Harlem,” and stopped. His mouth was full of blood. He forced himself to stand up and went to the little sink he had installed in his office hidden by the refrigerator with a bookshelf door.
He spat the blood and his eyes closed for a moment as he pondered life’s meaning. There was no way to express his sudden mental abyss. In an attempt to stop torturing himself he went to the refrigerator for some quick acting poisonous liquid. It was a present from Celeste, one of his many college girlfriends, but the only one worth remembering. Limping he leaned on its door when the phone rang in his coat. Not sufficiently intrigued, he took a big mouth of Johnny Walker Reserve, and then picked up his phone.
“Celeste, how propitious! Isn’t this past your bedtime? How are you going to get your beauty sleep if you come here for the opening act at 9 AM?”
“I read your book.”
“Skimmed it,” Knowlton chuckled taking another sip of Johnny.
“I did not see it coming.”
“What sweet Celeste?”
“We have the same patronymic: Knowlton.”
“Which is intriguing, given the fact that you are black, and he was white.”
“There is always a mother in the mix, Celeste. I know your story, but remember: mothers matter as much if not more than fathers.”
“Knowlton was a local hero,” Celeste ignored his words. “It’s going to be big news that he is your direct ancestor. How did you learn about his affair with the beautiful daughter of Ignatius Sancho?”
“All the documents of the time had it mentioned in a footnote or other. No one paid attention to that detail.”
“The book may save your sour prick.”
“Brian Bowles claims that you are an unrepentant womanizer and you are destroying his family. The woman’s own grandmother, the Barnard President wants you fired.”
“Celeste, you know me. I am fond of blonds.”
“What about your steady girlfriend?”
“She’s wonderful, and I love her, but I am not a one-woman man. You are not a one-man woman either. You understand me.”
“I do and am willing to help you. I like your book. Make tomorrow’s conference your finest. Find the Knowlton and the Sancho in you, my friend. Fire up your audience tomorrow. Make us your Rangers. The Rangers did not disappoint their Knowlton on September 16, 1776, and we will not disappoint you.”
“Celeste, my one and only love.”
“Tom, stop the nonsense. You do such a marvelous job at describing the brisk skirmish which took place for half an hour in the woods in Harlem. You make us witness it. Like Washington we have the birds’ view, and see the two dozen Rangers pushing back the Redcoats sent to annihilate them. I am there with the Rangers when they gave them about eight rounds apiece, killing as many as one hundred and injuring almost the same number, until it became clear the British were flank-guarding the Rangers. Colonel Knowlton gave the retreating order, which the Rangers flawlessly executed, without confusion and any loss.”
“Celeste, the Rangers made those British pay for their earlier contemptuous fox chase song. They had filled the Harlem forests with their bugle horns”
‘Hark! Hark the bugle’s lofty sound
Which makes the woods and rocks around
Repeat the martial strain,
Proclaims the light-armed British troops
Advance –Behold, rebellion droops
She hears the sound with pain.’”
“Yes, Tom. I have the pages in front of me. That skirmish inspired General Washington who from the heights of his refuge, devised a plan to enable the retreat of all the Patriots from Manhattan. He devised the feint. The Light Infantry would be entrapped in what was known as the Hollow thus shielding his army while leaving the island in the hope they could reunite later in a better location to fight back.”
“After the morning skirmish, the Rangers fought again that afternoon in the feint.”
“And your ancestor, Tom, died a hero delaying the British army. Excellent timing. The University won’t ever fire the descendant of a Revolutionary War hero.”
“Celeste, Knowlton’s son was a Ranger at that time, fighting under his father’s command.”
“And? I don’t get it. What are you afraid of, the age difference? Adultery?”
“I don’t know what I am afraid of right now, Celeste.”
“Tom, I am sure I have ancestors who raped black slaves. Yours were freely consenting adults.”
“Celeste, actually there is more to this than what you know. I found a letter from a former ranger, who wrote it as a retired Connecticut Judge. I am going to email it to you.” Tom sat down at his desk and turned on the desktop. His hands trembled. His fingers could not type anymore. His head was throbbing. “I would like to read you a page.”
“What’s the big deal?”
“Are you taking a bath?”
“Yes, I am at the Waldorf.”
“Shall I come?”
“Better not, Tom. I would not be too helpful if the tabloids got the gist of our relationship. Read me the page, please.”
Water dripping in the bathtub followed her silence. Tom took a pair of reading glasses and put them on. Leaning back on his chair he read from the screen:
“September 15 had been a hot day. We were lucky to be the guests of the Jones. His wife made us a good dinner of bread and stew, and Mr. Jones let us have as much beer as we wanted.
Some of us went for a walk. The colonel was okay with us leaving him. He was talking to a beautiful woman who told us the location of the Redcoats earlier. She was from England, but a Patriot sympathizer. If I did not know any better I would have thought her Negro. But she was lodging with the Murrays and our Colonel seemed ready to kill anybody who should have shown any disrespect.
Like most of the other rangers, I fell asleep in the forest. A man, bigger than Colonel Knowlton, woke us up. We all looked down confused and embarrassed. He did not talk much, or at all and we were happy. We followed him to the farm. The enemy must have heard us. They opened fire. The stranger fought like a tiger in charge. He killed about 100 of them. He might have not been a Ranger but he surely fought like one. When we reached the hill, I saw him approaching a foreign looking person who acted as a liaison, between him and the General, or better yet, as the foreigner’s handler telling him what to do.
Things moved so fast that day, and I was soon injured in that afternoon’s feint. I had forgotten about all this until I visited the spot of the battle last month and I thought I saw him. It was so real, I had to ask my companion to leave fast.”
“What are you trying to tell me, Tom?” Celeste asked unconvincingly as if knowing the answer.
“The hero of the day might have been someone else. A foreigner.”
“Where did you get this nonsense?”
“I uncovered it at Yale.”
“Tom, burn it. Delete it. Forget about it. I surely never heard its content.”
Tom felt a pang in his heart. He closed his eyes and fell into a stupor. He visualized his ancestor Arabella Sancho as Columbia’s Alma Mater, the cast-in-bronze-woman so large she is visible across the campus and from a helicopter. She stood up and approached the Low building. Her marble hand broke the window to his office and picked him up sitting in his chair. She smiled at him and told him everything would be okay.
Tony happily followed Lena into the street. His glasses almost fell over when she dragged him out. He felt free and childish and inconsequential and ready to scream an obscenity, when he tripped and had to stop to avoid falling down. Had he not been still he would have missed the call. His cellphone was on vibrate. For a moment he hoped it would stop on its own. Then, he freed his hands and patted down his pockets until he found it in his jacket’s inside pocket. He answered absentmindedly pressing the speaker button.
“Tonino, did you call me?”
Tony recognized his mother’s voice.
“No, mom. Why aren’t you sleeping?” Tony replied staring at Lena. She smiled tenderly when she realized it was his mother, or so Tony imagined. She nodded approvingly and let go of his hand.
Remorsefully, Tony watched her crossing Broadway, entering the campus and, as if in a ritual, retracing Ollie’s earlier steps. Soon, she disappeared walking up the 29 stairs to Earl Hall. He could have stopped her, or gone with her, but then he would have to be rude to his mother. He turned off the speaker.
”I cannot sleep when I know you are so far away, in the middle of that urban jungle.”
A car zipped by and Tony retreated into his booth.
“What did you say?” His mom asked.
“I saw the explosion at the Founding Father, where we had lunch with your boss last month. Luckily no one’s been harmed.”
“I saw your booth on TV,” his mother continued. “That place is not for you, Tonino.”
“Tony, you are a man now. Until you get your state license, you could be a substitute teacher. You don’t have to teach at my school. Anywhere you want on Staten Island.”
“I like Manhattan, mom.”
“Tonino, are you still there?”
“Uhuh,” Tony answered, and then corrected himself, “yes, mom.”
“And where is that, sweetheart?”
“In my booth, Mom.”
“How come you didn’t hear the explosion?
“Who said I didn’t, Mom?”
Tony fidgeting searched the Internet for the explosion coverage. Barnard students crossing the campus were all over the news. A TV anchor could be heard explaining that the tragedy had been averted and that all Barnard students found a place to sleep for the last night of the spring exams in the various Columbia University co-ed dormitories located on campus. The camera caught happy young women strolling there.
“Tonino, Tonino.” Tony put the phone away from his ear, irritated. “Are you ignoring me and writing your vampire novel? Why don’t you stop wasting your time? No one will publish your book. We are just not that type of people.”
“And what type of people are we, Mamma?”
“Tonino, you finished community college here in Staten Island.”
Tony was quiet. He had learned that every time the conversation reached this point, the best for him was to keep quiet.
“You need a job. Like your father.”
“Mom, I have a job.”
“Tonino, don’t get me wrong. I’m proud of you for enjoying reading history books and using your imagination. And I am happier you are not a firefighter.” His mom, fighting tears, continued with a shaken voice. “God wanted you to stay alive and do something great. Dad would have wanted the same.” By now his mother was crying. “I always pray to Madonna and thank her for looking out for you.”
“… Please, Mamma… You make me feel terrible.”
“I love you calling me ‘Mamma’.”
“I love you, Mamma.”
“I love you, son.”
“Thank you for calling, and please don’t cry.”
“I am going to bed now. Stay safe. Don’t let any girl get you into trouble Tonino, promise.”
“Good night mom.”
“Promise Tonino.” His desk phone rang loud and clear. His boss was at the other end.
“I have to go mom, please. Campbell is calling.”
“Mom, I have to hang up, please,” Tony pleaded and overwhelmed by the strident sound he was the first to hang up.
“My boy, anything I should know about?”
Tony’s heart was beating full of guilt. He had hung up on his mom to hear Campbell yawning.
“My boy, I watch TV too so I know about the boiler explosion. Anything else I should know before I go to bed?”
“Maybe,” Tony added forwarding the recording. “We lost contact with our intruders. They went in minutes before the explosion, but I have not seen them coming out.”
“You are not talking about Benoit, that fucking urban shit artist? Did he break in again?”
“No, sir, no spelunkers, and no guerilla urbanists.” Tony repressed a smile. “None of that, Sir.” And hearing a light snoring through the phone, Tony explained, “Sir, our regular intruders, Professor Knowlton and his Samantha, Sam. They have been inside for almost two hours.”
That prolonged speech seemed to have stirred some life at the other end of the line.
“Do you think they’re in trouble?”
“Could be.” Tony replied somewhat confused. He waited for more.
“Vampires or zombies? What do you think?” His boss finally offered and Tony stopped breathing.
“Gallant, I was asking about the novel you’re writing when I’m not checking on you, making you imagine stuff no one else does.” A female giggle could be heard next to Campbell, followed by what Tony pictured as cavorting.
Tony blushed and waited. When he was able to breath regularly he said:
“Don’t deny it, Gallant. You’re a bright man. Your old man was so proud of you. ‘A bit different, but shines in school,’ your old man told us. I know you want to go back to school and become a big shot writer.” Campbell stopped to compress laughter hard to keep quiet. “Who knows, maybe you can fly too. But for now, keep your eyes on those monitors. Don’t make me change my mind. Don’t you dare to talk to Knowlton. He’s a professor not a schmuck. Do you hear me, Gallant? Stay inside the boot and keep an eye on the students. That’s all, OK?”
Tony’s height shrank to 5 feet during this conversation.
“I’ll do my best, Sir.”
“Good. You like keeping an eye on those pretty students, don’t you?” Campbell added to the audible delight of his companion.
“I like keeping an eye on the students,” Tony repeated mechanically starting to hate himself.
“Who doesn’t, my boy, who doesn’t,” his boss replied and perhaps having bit his companion who shrieked with pleasure forgot to add “Good night” and hung up quickly.
Tony hung up exhausted. He sat down for a moment, then, he unlocked his drawer, grabbed a light and a can of Mace, saved his word document and exited the booth carefully locking the door behind him. From outside he missed listening to a delayed audio recording.
“Oh, Sam, you did it again.” Knowlton’s voice could be clearly heard from the dark tape. “With these talents you can easily become president,” he added while a zipping up noise was recorded and Sam’s most likely smacking her lips with pleasure.
“Now, Tom, why would you bite me?”
“Ouch, Sam! Do you have to bite me?” Their questions overlapped and the recording mercifully stopped.