September 11th (Fall 2001)

“Hey, fire!” a group of students yells cheerfully when they see the television footage in the Cultural Center (Harmoniecomplex) Hall. Many students and employees run into the television that is set up by the doormen every Tuesday when they’re on their way to the cafeteria. It’s set to CNN. When the subtitle “Terror Attacks In The US” appears on the screen and they realize the size of the tragedy, their joy is replaced by other feelings. “Now the Americans know what it feels like for once…” someone mumbles without really finishing the sentence. “But all those innocent people,” someone else protests. A teacher makes a gesture to his students – you can tell he can hardly believe it himself – that the lecture is going to continue. Someone else has one more look at the screen and yells “Ha, rocket shield, yeah right” and goes up the stairs. All mobile phone conversations around the university buildings only seem to be about one thing. “No man, no joke, the whole World Trade Center is gone,” one guy yells into his phone. An American student is on the phone crying in the hall of the Cultural Center (Harmoniecomplex). A meter and a half behind the television screen, two students continue making copies like nothing happened.

Although every citizen of Groningen head the news about the attacks filled with disbelief, the news struck 21-year-old Kenny Hamner extra hard. The young American, who studies in Groningen temporarily, was a powerless spectator as his countrymen were struck by terrorist attacks. In addition he was worried about his friends and family. “My mother works as a stewardess and I have friends who live in New York. Only after a couple of hours I could get in touch with them and I knew they were okay. Next to that I heard my uncle was in a plan during the attacks, but nothing happened to him luckily.”

The American exchange student exchanged his house in Georgia a couple of weeks ago for an international student house in Kraneweg. The moment of the events Kenny was at the university. “I was on the internet when I suddenly got a message from an American friend. He told me to put on the television because something terrible had happened. I quickly looked for another American student, and when we finally found a television, we saw the images. I was deeply shocked. Something like this isn’t possible, I thought.”

The student visited a friend in NYC only two months ago. They also visited the World Trade Center. “I knew how big those buildings were. When you see the images they look smaller, but they’re really incredibly tall. It’s unthinkable that these buildings have disappeared.”

John McCain (Winter 2000)

During my freshman year of college, a hall mate asked what I was up to.

It was a weeknight. I had homework. I was ready to get talked into something.

My hall mate was really into politics and invited me to go to the local airport because a politician was going to make an appearance there later that night. I wasn’t politically active then, but it beat reading Thomas More’s Utopia. Plus, there was going to be free beer.

I honestly don’t remember much from that evening. I found this Weekly Standard article by renowned asshole Tucker Carlson that recounts the events better than I could. Here’s an excerpt:

It’s three in the morning and hundreds of people are dancing inside a hangar at the Greenville-Spartanburg airport. Thundering techno-pop-disco-soul music blasts from enormous speakers in the corners. Spotlights cut through a haze of smoke to project purple and blue psychedelic designs onto a back wall. There’s a small hot-air balloon tethered near the door, a Greyhound-sized tour bus festooned with bunting parked across the concrete floor. The air smells like beer and cigarettes and sweat. No one in the room seems to be over 22. A lot of them are jumping up and down drunkenly in place and shouting: “John McCain! John McCain!”

For the reporters wandering in, bleary-eyed from hours on a charter flight from Manchester, it’s like stumbling upon some weird, secret Southern ritual. John McCain has just won the New Hampshire primary, and this is supposed to be his first post-victory political rally. Instead it feels like an after-hours rave. Or intermission at a Dead show. It feels subversive.

And, in a way, it is. John McCain has been running for president for about a year. Scores of reporters have written hundreds of stories about his campaign, most of them positive, many of them fawning. Yet in that time virtually nobody who covered McCain — or even who worked for him — seemed to believe that McCain had a chance of beating George W. Bush for the Republican nomination, much less of becoming president. The perception began to change shortly after lunch on primary day. The first exit polls came in around 1:00, and immediately caused mild panic at McCain headquarters. The data seemed to show McCain with as much as a 20-point lead over Bush. McCain strategists assumed that the numbers must be ridiculous, and worried that a subsequent 5-point victory (widely considered optimistic the day before) would look like failure by comparison.

As it turned out, McCain won the primary by 19 points. CNN declared him the winner at 7:00 P.M. Minutes later, Bush guru Karl Rove called McCain’s hotel room to concede. John Weaver, McCain’s political director, scoffed when he heard Rove was on the line. Weaver detests Rove, and was irritated by what he considered the arrogance of the call. “Tell him that consultants don’t concede to candidates,” Weaver said to an aide. “Have Bush call himself.” Bush soon did.

As I write this, John McCain’s casket is on its way from Arizona to DC for burial. I didn’t agree with him on everything, but as others have extensively noted, he served his country well.

1936-2018

“Best. Date.”

When she pulls the gun out of her handbag, you can’t help but laugh. It’s so tiny and cute. You’re also surprised guns come in pink.

“I said, shut up and start the car!”

Her high-pitched voice reminds you of Minnie Mouse. You laugh again because you think all this is funny.

“You think all this is funny, asshole?”

She leans across the passenger seat and places the barrel against your cheek.

“Here’s what’s going to happen.” She flips strands of dirty blonde hair behind her shoulder. “First, you are going to shut up. Shut up, shut up, shut up! I’ve listened to you blab incessantly for the past two hours. I’m tired of your talking. I’m tired of your voice. I’m tired of you. And after you shut up, you’re going to put the keys in the ignition and drive this piece-of-shit car to the nearest ATM, and you’re going to get me some money. And then we’re going to keep doing that until I say you can stop. And if you don’t shut up or start the car or give me my money, I’m going to be tired of your breathing.” She pauses then shrieks, “Do you understand?”

With the gun digging deeper, you peer into her eyes. Those deep, blue eyes had been the first thing you’d noticed when Jasmine Stone’s profile popped up on your phone’s dating app. They’d reminded you of your ex-wife’s eyes, and that had excited you.

She moves the barrel to your temple. “Asshole, do you understand me?”

You politely remind her that you aren’t supposed to say anything.

“Jesus… Nod!”

A voice inside you whispers, subtly reminding you that you should feel differently than you do. There is no fear or anxiety or any sort of feelings of mortality. Just those blue eyes.

As you nod, the pressure from your temple disappears. “Take a right out of here. Do as I say, and don’t do anything stupid!”

Your key finds the ignition. As it’d been prone to do for the last six months, the crankshaft turns several times before the engine wheezes alive. The car buzzes as the hood contains the loud hiss, but that problem becomes less noticeable as The Very Best Of Daryl Hall & John Oates pours out of the speakers.

Over the TGI Friday’s Endless Appetizers, you’d told Jasmine four times how beautiful she was in real life. Repeating this ensured that she’d heard you and that you were serious. As she sits in your passenger seat with her gun still pointed towards your head, her look of confidence and control make her more than beautiful.

She is sexy.

* * *

With the opening drum beats and bass notes of “Maneater” filling the car, you cross beneath a low-lying bridge. On the other side is a tall, illuminated sign advertising gas prices. The accompanying convenient store appears newly-constructed and non-descript, save for the posters plastered across its glass walls promoting fresh coffee and Coca-Cola.

“Park in that spot.” She is pointing the gun towards the store’s far end.

You do as you’re told. You turn off the car.

“Here’s what’s going to happen…. You’re going to give me your keys and wallet. I’ll get out of the car, and when I open your door, you are going to slowly get out. I’m going to be right behind you, and you are going to feel some pressure on your spine. Make any sudden movements, say anything to anybody, or do anything funny, and you’re done. Got it?”

You’re about to remind her again that you aren’t supposed to say anything. Instead, you nod.

She takes your things with her free hand then backs out the open door, never taking the blue eyes and pink gun off you. She then quickly slams her door and circles to you seemingly just as fast.

“Get out.” With a tone that is matter-of-fact but with a look that suggests empathy, she then quips, “The sooner we do this, the sooner we get out of here.”

You exit the car. The barrel pushes you inside.

The college-aged clerk sits behind the counter, fully devoted to the game on his phone. You pass through rows of candy and snacks until you reach the ATM nestled beside a tower of Bud Light cases.

Jasmine hands you your debit card and whispers, “Get as much as you can.” The pressure against your spine increases sharply.

You enter your pin. When prompted, you tell the machine you want several hundred dollars from checking.

The machine beeps and says that you can’t have several hundred dollars from checking.

“What’s the problem? Are you having a problem?”

You tell her everything’s good and type in a lower amount.

The ATM says everything isn’t good with the lower amount.

“Jesus… Don’t you have overdraft protection or something?”

You want to ask, What’s overdraft protection?

You can’t see your date, but you hear her increasing frustration as you continue to enter withdrawal amounts that produce more errors. Finally, on the fifth try, the ATM spits out some cash.

You pass Jasmine a twenty over your shoulder.

“You’ve got to be kidding me.”

You tell her that’s all you can get.

The clerk doesn’t notice the gun pushing you away from the ATM and back into your car. Jasmine collapses in the passenger seat. Her head rests against the dash, and she just sits there. Minutes seem to pass. She then lets out a small yet aggravated grunt.

The voice inside you whispers. It tells you that the gun is in her left hand, pointing towards the ceiling. It tells you to run. All you have to do is open the door and go. She won’t know what’s happening until it’s too late.

Your hand doesn’t reach towards the door. Instead, your hand finds her shoulder. It gives her a quick rub.

She slaps you away and shoves the barrel in your face. “Don’t touch me!” Her volume is past yelling. “Don’t you dare touch me again!”

Startled, you lift both hands in the air like you’re surrendering. You apologize sincerely. You tell her you’re just concerned. And then, for some reason, you ask if there is anything I can do to help.

She pauses then gives a crooked smile.

“Why don’t we go back to your place?”

* * *

Your car madly weaves through familiar neighborhoods, but the streets feel unusually dark. Houses you know to be full of families appear abandoned. Stores and strip malls that should be open this time of night look shuttered and neglected.

You feel both the pink gun and those blue eyes bearing down on you. They fuel you driving faster. The car rattles louder, almost drowning out Hall & Oates and “Private Eyes.” You only slow down when the approaching light turns yellow. Jasmine yells for you to go. You do as you’re told and drive through the beginnings of the red light.

“All my life, I’ve had to deal with idiots like you,” she says. “Nobody’s ever given me a break.”

She keeps talking, but you’re not paying attention. You’re so excited to show Jasmine your place, you can’t help it.

The rear of your car almost fish-tails as you swerve right into Riverside Apartments. You zip up the hill and come to a sudden stop at the end of the street, right into the space in front of your building.

Jumping out of the car, you tell her to follow you — your place has an excellent view of the river from your porch!

Leaping several steps at a time up the stairs, Jasmine can barely keep up. You reach the top floor and sprint to your door with keys in hand. When she steps out of the stairwell gun-drawn, you’re waving for her to come inside. You tell her you’ll make her a drink.

When she enters, you’re standing in the middle of your living room with arms outstretched, showing your home with pride. Breathing heavily from the climb, she scans the shag carpet that’s the color as her gun and the yellow couch scarred with holes and spills.

“Jesus H. Christ…” Her foot slams the door behind her. “How do you live here?”

You tell her you’ve been here for years. Your ex-wife had found the place.

She motions the gun in a way that instructs you to take a seat. You find a spot on the couch, and she methodically circles the room, studying all your belongings.

“You too poor to have a TV in here?”

You explain to her that ever since you converted the apartment’s second bedroom into your video game room, you’ve kept the television in there.

Her mouth displays annoyance. For some reason you still find this cute.

She approaches the fireplace where she notices a framed picture of you and your ex-wife on its mantle. She picks it up, and her blue eyes shift between the photo and you a few times until it drops carelessly to the carpet.

“Tell me what valuables you have here.”

You tell her that you have a lot of valuable things. You keep them all in the nightstand.

She motions you to your feet, and the barrel marches you towards your bedroom. You turn on overhead lights as you go through the unkempt kitchen and barren hall, and just as you flip on your bedroom switch, the side of the gun smashes the top of your head.

You collapse.

You’re not knocked unconscious, but you’re definitely shaken.

Laying curled up on the carpet, you see Jasmine’s feet quickly run across the carpet, and she frantically removes a case off your pillow. She jumps towards your nightstand and fills her makeshift goodie bag with your valuables. However, as soon as she realizes that she’s loading the case with restaurant menus and coupons printed from the Internet, she furiously spikes it to the ground.

“This shit is worthless!” She’s yelling more obscenities as her kick flips you flat on your back. While straddling your chest, the weight of her entire body drives the tip of the barrel deep between your eyes.

“Where’s your money, asshole?”

The top of your head hurts. The barrel of the gun hurts. But what hurts the most is the sudden realization that, despite everything you’ve put into it, this date may not be going so well.

Tears gather behind your eyes. It’s a sensation you haven’t felt since those many years ago. You swallow. You take a deep breath, and unlike the moment when your ex-wife opened the door with the intention of leaving your life forever, you manage to dislodge the words from your throat.

You say, “Don’t go.”

The look of anger across Jasmine’s face grows confused and complicated. “What did you say?”

“Please….” You beg, “Don’t leave…”

Jasmine looks taken back, but she continues straddling you, now pushing the gun into the bridge of your nose. “What are you saying?”

When the tears roll down your face, she stands up but continues to point the gun directly at you. More abruptly begin to flow. You can’t help alternating between moans and gasps for air. Closing your eyes usually calms you, but this time it lets everything inside you loose.

“Stop it!” Jasmine yells. “I need you to stop it! Stop your emotions now!”

It’s no use. Her directions can’t be followed.

You bring your knees to your chest and grasp yourself into a ball. You roll to your side, and the sobs keep coming.

Jasmine’s feet move out of your field of vision, and you hear her run around your apartment. When she returns, you’re still a mess. You’re about to let out another loud wail when something enters your mouth, muzzling you. You recall the taste of sock from middle school, and a roll of duct tape she must have brought in her handbag clasps it uncomfortably into place.

You flip onto your back. The side of the gun hits you across the forehead. Your head shakes violently, and while stunned, your hands are taped together. When she’s done, they can barely wiggle.

“Now,” she says, “I need you to calm down so we can wrap this up.”

As the pink gun jabs you into the living room, you barely maintain your balance. The knocks to your head grows increasingly painful, but by far the worst pain is from the leftover tear streaks. Cut across your cheeks, they feel like fire.

Jasmine grabs your shoulder and makes you stop in the center of the room. “Kneel,” she commands.

You uneasily lower yourself to the carpet and fall to the side. She doesn’t help as you squirm your way upright.

She slowly makes her way to the couch. Those deep, blue eyes you love so much are framed with a stern look.

“Before I go, we need to talk about a few things… If I had to sum this evening up, I’d say it’s been full of lies.” She grabs her chest dramatically. “I’ll admit, I haven’t been entirely truthful to you. My parents didn’t give me a porn star name, and I wasn’t looking for a relationship with you. For that, I’d apologize, but I’m not going to because you weren’t truthful to me, either. You misled me. I thought you had money. You lied to me. You shouldn’t do that to people. If you were honest and said you were broke and stupid, none of this would have happened.”

Not-Jasmine raises the gun higher with a committed look.

“I read the Bible growing up. There’s a part in there I like a lot. ‘Let us tell our neighbors the truth, for we are all parts of the same body.’ I think both of us should stop lying to each other, so I’m going to tell you a truth — I’m not going to let you live.”

The voice inside you whispers. It tries to convince you that she’s serious.

This really is the end.

She lifts herself off the couch to circle behind you. You stare at the carpet. Beside you is the mantle’s picture frame that Not-Jasmine dropped. You and your ex-wife are arm-in-arm. You are no doubt smiling, but it’s impossible to be certain. The construction-paper cosplay helmet of Iron Man covers your face.

The tape rips off your mouth, and the gun pinches the back of your neck.

“I’m going to give you one last chance to say something true before you die. If you want to apologize to me, whatever. But it better be the truth.”

Slowly, you spit the sock out of your mouth. It lands next to the frame, and you take the deepest breath you’ve ever taken.

You pause.

You close your eyes.

You say, “I had a really nice time with you tonight.”

* * *

When you come to, you are flat on your stomach, spread eagle across the pink shag carpet. Your headache is massive. Everything’s blurry.

You struggle out of the tape handcuffs and find a large bump on the back of your head instead of a hole.

The apartment door is swung open. You get to your feet but immediately collapse on the couch. To help with the pain, you know you should get some aspirin, but you honestly don’t know if you have any or where the bottle would be.

As you peer back down towards the carpet, your picture frame has company. It’s easy to miss because the pink gun blends in so well with the shag.

You fall forward to pick it up. It’s still so small and easily dwarfed in your hand. The handle feels solid, but the crude paint peels to the fingernail. It doesn’t take long to uncover “CO2 BB” engraved in the barrel.

The sliding glass door to your porch is sticky but eventually pries open. Below, the river rages. Leaning against the rail, you wind your arm back and hurl the gun towards the rapids. It spins and becomes one with the darkness. And as it disappears, you can’t help feel this had been your best date in a long time.

The Northern Dispensary (Winter 2005)

Across the street from my apartment when I lived in New York from 2004 through 2006 was a vacant building known as the Northern Dispensary. Founded as a hospice for the poor in 1827, this wedge-shaped landmark was a West Village oddity as it sat the point at which two branches of Waverly Place come together and where Christopher Street and Grove Street diverge off Christopher Park.

Throughout its existence the Northern Dispensary went through several incarnations and housed a number of disparate lives. Edgar Allan Poe was once treated for a head cold here in 1836. In 1960, the Dispensary was transformed into a dental clinic, one that would eventually become infamous for refusing to treat a HIV-patient in 1986. A lawsuit and bankruptcy followed shortly thereafter.

When I lived in New York, Gottlieb Real Estate owned the building. Its founder, William Gottlieb, left the Dispensary to his sister when he passed in 1999. William had the reputation of never selling his properties nor investing more than the minimum in restoration and management. This tradition was successfully upheld by his sister. The interior was nothing but chipped white walls, and torn down medical cabinets remained in the middle of some rooms. Given the building’s history and setting, the Gottlieb family could have made a fortune if they’d converted Dispensary into apartments, but it remained empty.

Sometimes at night I heard sounds from the Dispensary—glass shattering, fights, drunken screaming. And then, one day, I saw something.

It was a Saturday afternoon, and I was still lying in bed from the previous night’s heavy drinking. I was alone. My roommates were out of town. I got up, twisted open my blinds, and squinted out the window. The snow from the night before had stopped, but Waverly was still covered in white. Soaking in the scene when, I saw her. She was standing on the corner ledge of the Dispensary, staring down onto the street where Waverly intersects with Waverly. Was she getting ready to jump? And if so, who commits suicide by jumping off a three-story building? She did not inch forward. She did not back away. I couldn’t find it in myself to make her stop whatever she was doing. Then again, what could I have done?

A siren went off in the distance. She looked towards Sixth Avenue then turned forward, looking in my direction. Though I knew she didn’t see me, it chilled me just the same. She dipped her head and stepped away from the ledge, out of my view of the Dispensary.

That was the last I saw of her. It was not the last time I thought of her.

“On Urban Sprawl”

Mark: “Hey there. What’s your name?”
David: “David.”
Mark: “Hey, David! I’m Mark!”
(Extends right-hand to David)
David: “Nice to meet you, Mark!”
(Shakes Mark’s hand)
Mark: “Where you from?”
David: “Oh, I’m from the Atlanta area.”
Mark: “Really? What part???”
David: “Chattanooga.”

THE END

“2-1-20-8-18-15-15-13”

An short story from 2009.


“Watcha reading?”

“Kafka. Just started it. You?”

“Nintendo DS.”

“What happened to the book I gave you?”

“Reading hard — Mario easy!”

“You are such a Man-Child. I don’t know why I’m with you sometimes.”

“Because I’m adooorable.”

“If you say so…”

Paige set The Trial aside and sat up from the grass. Looking over Piedmont Park, a group of kids tossed a Frisbee at the base of their hill. A couple in the distance walked a terrier towards the dog run.

“Want to grab a beer or something?”

“Maybe in a moment. I’m almost done with this level.”

“It’s a really nice day. There aren’t a lot of people sitting outside Park Tavern…”

Jim took the hint. He closed the game system shut with a loud clamp. “Can I drop this off in the car?”

“Afraid somebody is going to take it?”

“You never know,” he joked.

Paige gathered her things. “You’re buying first round.”

He nodded.

Walking down the sidewalk and holding hands, Jim could feel Paige dig her sapphire engagement ring deep into his palm. She started swinging their hands playfully. He looked at her. She gave him a smile.

As they approached the street where they’d left their car, Jim noticed the metallic box-like building by the park’s exit. It was the infamous Robot Bathroom the city had installed a few years back. He’d seen it in the past, and it had always made him curious. However, this time there was no line by its entrance. 

“I have to go to the bathroom,” said Jim, quickly pointing towards the building.

“In there?”

“It’s a self-cleaning urinal that costs more than the condo. I gotta try it.”

Jim handed her his Nintendo DS and jogged towards the bathroom. He pressed a button lined by a wintery-blue light that was next to the door, and it slid open like it was from Star Trek.

“This is how people will piss in the future!”

She gave him a disgusted face but still laughed.

Inside, Jim thought the bathroom looked cold due to its excessive chrome and unnatural light, but its sparseness made it strangely relaxing and roomy. A robotic voice commanded him to close the door. He did what he was told, and Paige gave a small wave as she disappeared.

Jim walked to the toilet and took care of his business. A motion detector flushed the toilet. A motion detector gave him water with a squirt of soap. A motion detector let him dry his hands under the blasting hot air.

With a quick run of his fingers through his hair, he was ready to go. He walked to the exit, found the door’s button, and gave it a firm press. 

Nothing happened. 

He pressed the button again.

The door remained closed.

He stood there perplexed for a second, and the third time still failed to open the bathroom.

“Hey, Paige!” Jim yelled. “I’m having a little bit of trouble in here…”

“What?!?”

“I said I’m having a problem! The door isn’t opening!”

“The door isn’t opening?!? I can’t really hear you in there!”

He pressed the button again. “Yes! The door isn’t opening! Can you press the door button outside!”

“What?!?”

“Press the button for the door!”

A couple of seconds passed.

“I just pressed it! The door isn’t opening! Try it from the inside!”

“I just did!”

“…Do you think it’s stuck?”

“I don’t know! The bathroom has power and everything!”

Jim heard Paige’s frustrated sigh. “I just pressed the outside button again! I don’t know what else to do!”

“Is there anybody else out there who can help me?”

“I could go find somebody!”

“Yes – yes, go find one of the Park people!”

“Okay!” she yelled. “I’ll be right back!”

Jim cursed. He circled around the bathroom once then read the bullet-pointed instructions and rules tacked beside the door. The line saying that the bathroom had a ten minute limit gave him hope that the door would automatically open, but the deadline came and went.

He whipped out his iPhone and learned that the walls gave him no bars. Disheartened, he collapsed his back against the door and strained to hear the sounds of the outside world — Paige’s return with help, other people wanting to use the bathroom, cars speeding through the nearby intersection. All he heard was a strange silence. The entire city had gone mute.

Jim’s stomach rumbled. He got up and impatiently began to pound his fist against the door. Three knocks turned into five, and five knocks suddenly morphed into a series of kicks and yells. He quickly ran out of energy and just about fell face-first into the door. He listened again for the outside world but continued to eerily hear nothing.

Jim spent many hours pounding the door, listening, and then pounding some more. Frustrated, he eventually resigned himself to the fact that there was nothing he could do but wait for help.

So that was what he did.

He closed his eyes, and he waited.

*    *    *

Once Jim awoke, he noticed the envelope immediately. Its dark red color clashed vibrantly against the white tile floor, and it reflected wildly off the door’s brushed chrome. He hesitated for a moment then quickly crawled towards it like an unstable baby. Scribbled in capitals was JAMES BALDECCHI.

“What the hell?” whispered James Baldecchi.

He looked at the door. Had somebody slipped the letter underneath its frame? The gap between the door and floor appeared to be too small to fit much of anything.

His finger wedged easily underneath the envelope’s flap, and with a quick flick it ripped open. Only a torn white piece of paper fell to the ground. Jim picked it up and was so surprised by what he saw that he read the numbers aloud:

25-15-21  1-18-5 7-15-9-14-7  20-15 4-9-5

For some reason unbeknownst to him, he started doing the math in his head.

25 minus 15 minus 21 is negative 11.

1 minus 18 minus 5 is negative 22.

7 minus 15 minus 9 minus 14 minus 7 is negative 39.

As suddenly as he’d begun, he stopped. What were those numbers supposed to mean?

He slowly lowered himself against the door and stared at the scrap of paper for what seemed like hours but knew were minutes. He wondered: Why do some of the numbers have dashes between them and others have spaces? Why wasn’t there a 50 or 114? Why didn’t any of them go over the number 25?

Jim started counting to himself.

The letter Y is the 25th letter in the alphabet.

The 15th letter is O.

The 21st letter is U.

Y-O-U!

Jim carefully began to count the other numbers and let the spaces separate the words. When he finished, his hands began to tremble. He went back and did the string again but came to the same deciphered conclusion:

YOU ARE GOING TO DIE

The paper hit the floor. A fear Jim never knew existed shot across his body.

A slight vibration rattled his left pocket. Surprised, he cautiously reached into his jeans for his no-reception iPhone. The screen indicated the call was from an unknown number.

“Hello?” answered Jim nervously.

There was no response.

“Is anybody there?”

A high-pitched squeal emitted from the speaker. Jim swore as he yanked the phone from his ear. The sound continued for what seemed minutes. Then it suddenly stopped.

Jim returned the phone to his ear. “Is anybody there?”

“Jim?…”

“Paige!”

“Jim, it’s me! Where are you?!?”

“Thank God!” he yelled. He jumped from the ground and started pacing. “I’m still in the bathroom from yesterday! You have to get me out of here!”

“Listen…” she said in a hushed tone. “You don’t have much time. I got a letter in Spanish explaining everything. You need to get to the car. It’s still on 10th Street.”

“…What?”

“The letter said there was a lever hidden in the bathroom that will release the door. You need to get out of there now and –”

Silence.

Jim pulled the iPhone off his cheek. The call was still active.

“Paige?!? Paige, are you still there?!?”

The iPhone clicked. The screen went black.

Talk of the lever rejuvenated Jim, and escape made him too psyched to question how he’d gotten the call or what he’d do when he got to the car.

His eyes scrutinized each wall in rows and then columns. He crawled around the floor and placed his fingers into every nook and cranny. He even tried to move the toilet.

Hours passed.

Defeat set in.

Jim plopped into the corner behind the toilet, and his head fell on top of his propped knees. He placed his iPhone between his feet and desperately hoped for another call.

*    *    *

For the first time in his life, Jim woke to a real hunger in his stomach. He gave it a slight rub, and for a second the only thing he wanted more than an open door was a Chick-fil-A biscuit.

Jim knew he had to distract his mind. He rose to his feet and waved his hand in front of the sink. Warm water gushed from the faucet, and he splashed himself awake. He looked deep into the mirror. He caressed the beginnings of his beard and suddenly spotted the dark red envelope at the foot of the door. Even in the backwards reflection, he could make out JAMES BALDECCHI.

Cautiously, Jim walked towards the envelope. It appeared as if somebody had slipped it under the door again. He got down on one knee, slowly opened it, and removed its white scrap of paper:

20-18-15-21-2-12-5  6-9-14-4-9-14-7 20-8-5  12-5-22-5-18?

Jim started to count:

T is the 20th letter.

The 18th letter is R.

The 15th letter is O.

The 21st letter is U.

The 2nd letter is B.

The 12th letter is L.

The 5th letter is E.

T-R-O-U-B-L-E!

His brain worked overtime, quickly deciphering the remaining numbers. He cursed when he got his answer:

TROUBLE FINDING THE LEVER?

Jim gnashed his teeth as he tore into the message. Its remains fell to the ground. He yelled and banged and kicked the door again until his hands bled.

He collapsed next to the code’s white shreds and crumpled them into a tiny ball. Just as he was about to drop it into the toilet, he spotted something new sitting below the water’s surface. It was a sparkling circle with a slight blue protrusion. A thick white string was tied to it, and the string’s other end appeared to be stuffed deep within the toilet.

At first Jim’s hand recoiled to the water’s cold temperature, but then he shoved in his arm almost to its elbow. He cusped the object and quickly lifted it out of the water. He paused uneasily. He opened his hand. It was Paige’s sapphire engagement ring.

In a sudden rage Jim fumbled to untie the wet string from the ring, but the knot was tight. He pulled and pushed and grunted to get any part loose. He had no luck.

Without thinking, Jim wrapped the string several times around his hand and began to reel in its slack. At first it came out of the toilet like a handkerchief from a magician’s sleeve, but it finally got tight. Jim continued to pull and pull, and a final bit of slack jerked out of the toilet.

It felt as if he had pulled on something.

It felt as if he had pulled on a lever.

Jim’s entire body lit up. He looked at the exit, and the bathroom began to make a series of mechanical sounds that exponentially got louder. He ran and placed his hands on the door.

Suddenly, a series of sprinkler heads jetted out of the walls and ceiling. With a loud release, they sprayed hot foam everywhere, soaking Jim with the rest of the room. He groaned and flailed as the water’s temperature got unbearably hotter. He closed his eyes, and the pressure made it so hard for him to stand that he lost his footing.

His head met the toilet seat. The bathroom turned to black.

* * *

Jim came-to at the base of the sink, still dripping wet. He touched his forehead. The was no blood. He circled the knot with an index finger. As he sighed and rolled over, the bathroom door began to quickly slide shut.

“Hey!” he yelled. “HEY!!!”

He got to his feet as fast as he could and practically threw himself across the room, but he was too late. The door had shut. The bathroom remained his prison.

Jim felt something move under his right shoe. The new red envelope was different than the others. It was the size of a sheet of legal paper. He picked it up, undid the top, and pulled out a square piece of cardboard.

There was a dried red stain in the middle.

Jim’s mind raced to Paige.

He thought about the cut-off phone call. He thought about the ring in the toilet.

Horrified, Jim dropped the cardboard and backed away. He felt like tearing the chrome off the wall. He wanted to smash the toilet. But more than anything, he wanted to get out.

Jim got a running start and rammed his shoulder against the door as hard as he could. It shook and made a lingering rattle.

Jim stepped back against the wall, ran a couple of feet, and hit the door again. He didn’t care that he was slowly breaking his shoulder. The second hit had a good angle and made a small dent.

His third ram was not as hard but made a much bigger noise. It was so big that Jim slowly stepped back and realized it couldn’t have come from him. It had to have come from the outside world.

“Hey!” Jim yelled. “Hey! If you can hear me, let me out of here! I’m stuck in this bathroom!”

Silence.

“Please let me out! Can you hear me?!?!”

Just then there was deafening bang followed by something slamming against the door. The dent Jim’s shoulder had made now slightly protruded into the bathroom.

Jim was startled back against the wall. The lights flickered to black. The door suddenly slid open with a thunderous burst.

There was another bang. A bullet buzzed Jim’s ear and crashed above his shoulder. Surprised, Jim instinctively jumped towards the toilet for cover, but a sharp pain took a bite out of his left calf. He grasped the wound and yelled in pain.

The lights suddenly flickered back on, and standing in the open doorway was a short man wearing a black jumpsuit. He wore a matching ski mask.

He smiled.

“I guess this is the part where you kill me like you killed Paige.”

The man menacingly reached behind his back and approached his target. Jim closed his eyes tight. Something hit his chest. However, it didn’t feel like a gunshot.

Cautiously, Jim cracked an eye. The red envelope said JAMES BALDECCHI.

The man crouched to Jim’s ear. “Esto es mucho peor,” he whispered in a thick accent. He slowly rose to his feet and blended into the darkness of the outside world.

With the door still open, Jim finally had his escape, but he remained motionless. He had nothing left inside. All he had was the envelope.

He gathered his remaining strength and pulled himself onto the toilet seat. A flick of the finger tore the envelope’s seal, and Jim pulled out the white scrap of paper containing the coded message. His mind raced to decipher each number. He frantically repeated each letter and word.

Once Jim got to the end, he couldn’t believe it. He fell to his knees and screamed uncontrollably.

9  19-20-15-12-5  25-15-21-18 14-9-14-20-5-14-4-15  4-19!

Mike Maloof

Brian Maloof is the owner of the legendary Manuel’s Tavern in Atlanta. Sadly, his brother Mike Maloof passed away Saturday at age 72.

Mike was an accomplished defense attorney, and years ago he had a run-in with Sean Hannity, who was then an Atlanta-based radio host. Brian’s Facebook post remembering his brother recounts the encounter.

Claudette Harty (Spring 1997)

I attended McIntosh High School in Peachtree City, Georgia from the fall of 1995 through the spring of 1999. Overall, it was a pretty great experience, and to this day many of my classmates remain great friends. One of them is Jared. As I type this, I’m currently somewhere over Oklahoma and heading to Scottsdale, Arizona for his bachelor party.

Of course you can’t have the sweet without the sour. There were some things about McIntosh that were less than ideal. One of those was a teacher named Claudette Harty. She taught Speech, and unless you were in band, chorus, or drama, her class was a required course.

Ms. Harty had a terrible reputation amongst the students. She was mean and wouldn’t hesitate to issue detention for unruly behavior or poor marks for what she considered a bad speech. She had no respect for the students, and the students absolutely had no respect for her. Not helping her was her appearance. She looked fucking ancient – white hair, shrunken stature, wrinkles, and more. Everybody thought she’d die any moment, and everybody was looking forward to it with glee.

An example – I had a good friend who was a year older than me who was deeply religious. He attended church on Sundays and Wednesdays, and he was active in Young Life, a non-denominational Christian organization targeted towards high schoolers. He was friendly, outgoing, and cared for others. He wanted Ms. Harty to die before he was forced to take Speech.

* * * * *

I ended up taking Speech my sophomore year. Ms Harty lived up to her reputation. There was one girl in my class who didn’t take her shit. Ms. Harty one time gave her detention for leaving her backpack in the walkway between desks. The next day, she did the same thing and got detention again. And then the next day, the exact thing happened again followed by the next day and the next. It got to the point where the girl refused to give assigned speeches. She failed. She had to take Ms. Harty’s class again.

Personally, I flew under the radar, did the work, and ended up with an A-. The only trouble I ran into was with the first speech. We were supposed to interview somebody we knew, and we had to give a five-minute speech on what we learned. Ms. Harty insisted we use note cards to deliver our speech, and she instructed us to use a specific bullet-point format within our notes. I ended up not interviewing anybody. Instead, I read an article on slaughter-house workers, and I made-up my notes from there. They were great!

The next day, we were give our interview speeches. I sat down at my assigned desk and panicked. My note cards were not in my backpack. They’d disappeared. I never ended up finging them.

The speeches were to be given over the next two days because there were so many students in class. I had a 50/50 chance I would be in the clear and felt lucky.

Ms. Harty called on me first.

I fished some blank note cards out of my bag, walked to the front, and stood behind the podium. The slaughter-house article had fascinated me so much that I amazingly remembered every detail I wanted to include in my speech. I started talking, occasionally glancing down and shuffling through my empty cards. My points were articulate. I was confident, and I was having a good time  talking about how the man I’d interviewed was responsible for placing a bolt into the cow’s head. I finished my speech right at five minutes, and then I took my seat and panicked again, knowing I’d turn in blank notes.

Ms. Harty didn’t ask for our note cards that day. I scored a 97, the highest grade I’d receive for a speech.

It remains one of my proudest moments.

* * * * *

Later that spring, Ms. Harty announced she was retiring. Those who hadn’t yet taken her class celebrated.

Ms. Harty administered her final exam just hours before the Class of 97’s graduation ceremony. After she collected the tests, she packed her things, closed the classroom door behind her, and was officially done as a teacher. She walked through the lobby, exited through the school’s front doors, and then proceeded towards the teacher parking lot. It was then that she collapsed and started convulsing on the ground. I wasn’t there to witness it, but the rumor was that students circled around her and started cheering “Die! Die! Die!” as a major heart attack took her life.

* * * * *

No mention of Ms. Harty’s passing was made that evening at graduation. It was for the best. Whenever us students would talk about what had happened, there was no remorse that we wanted her dead and then got our wish. A friend of mine bragged her car had blocked the ambulance from getting to her. The only remorse came from my Christian friend, but that was only because he’d bitten the bullet and taken Speech during Ms. Harty’s last semester. If he’d waited for his senior year, he would have been in the clear.

The following fall there was a blood drive in her honor. I ended up going not to necessarily honor Ms. Harty but because giving blood is important. It was there I learned that Ms. Harty was actually in her late 50s despite appearances. If she’d made it to her car and driven off campus, she would have had a comfortable retirement with a man she was about to marry. I only know this because he was at the blood drive. He was nice. He shook my hand. He thanked me for coming.

* * * * *

I haven’t thought a lot about Ms. Harty over the years but occasionally share her passing as one of those you-won’t-believe-what-happened-at-my-high-school stories. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve tried to recognize her as a human being that had people that loved her. But it’s a struggle because I then remember her as a mean woman. She seemed to take delight in making us unnecessarily miserable, and for that, she can go fuck herself.

Does that make me a bad person?

* * * * *

My plane is about to touch down in Phoenix, and I’m about to see Jared and many of my friends from high school again. Jared is marrying a girl from our McIntosh days. He recently posted a photo on his wedding website that has them posing in front of out old school. I’m going to text him a doctored version of that photo with a caption that says “Ms. Harty died here.”