It’s about nine o’clock in the evening. I take a late class at the Victor B. Tooms building, and tonight the moon is full and everything is illuminated by starlight and given a bluish sheen. The night sings a music of crickets and distant cars, and the campus lights shimmer weakly as though their lives are short and tremulous as a flame’s. There’s an odor in the air, faint yet spicy and sickly-sweet, like burning rubber or boiling soap. I bite my lip and watch the cobblestones beneath my feet. All of a sudden, he’s there, standing in a dollar green gown, his face black, eyes large and seemingly lit by pale hidden fires, blocking my path like a troll. For whatever reason, I don’t try to move around him. I stop and stare. A crown hangs askew on his head, a crudely-made thing of jagged points. My mouth opens but nothing comes out. The man carries a bedpost in his hands, a scepter of sorts, I suppose, and he shifts it from left to right, as though unable to decide which hand is more worthy of wielding it. There are dark stains on the front of his gown, like he’s had a messy meal.
“Are you supposed to be the Statue of Liberty?” I ask. “I’m sorry. I didn’t wear my costume.”
I get no reaction, just the same shifting of his scepter from hand to hand. He seems tense; it’s hard to get a read on his face, which looks to be painted with charcoal.
“Well, I’m going to go now,” I say, putting a hand in my pocket. “I hear mace is bad for your health. You have a nice night.”
He stops shifting the scepter. He holds it in his right—I can see his knuckles tightening like he’s trying to crush the wood—and I lose it and start running. I sprint the whole way, my book bag weighing me down, dangling from my shoulder—I briefly consider tossing it and its ridiculously expensive contents—desperately looking for someone, anyone, to cling to and beg help of, but there’s no one around at this late hour, and I can’t seem to find a campus emergency phone or a well-lit area to save my life. As my feet pound the pavement, I spy the library looming ahead, a gigantic rectangle, like something built out of children’s building blocks, and I sprint up the steps like Rocky and push through the revolving doors. I see tables with students, students using computers, librarians behind sturdy-looking desks. There is no noise behind me. Through the tinted glass I see him pass in the shadows, a hint of a figure, something malevolent and radiating weirdness, his bed post dragging on the cobblestones, the club of a prehistoric predator. I go to the front desk and tell the person sitting there that I’ve been pursued.
“By whom?” asks the bespectacled grad student. He has messy hair and giant bags beneath his eyes. His name tag says “Jason.”
“A guy dressed like the Statue of Liberty, swinging a bed post, with a painted face,” I say. “I just watched him slink past the entrance. I think he’s waiting for me.”
“Was it a good costume?” asks Jason. “Or did it look like something he just kind of cobbled together?”
“It was a poor costume. He wouldn’t get any candy at Halloween.”
“You sure he had a bed post? That seems a little unusual.”
“You’re not taking this seriously, are you?” I ask.
“I’ll call campus security right away,” says Jason.
“Forget it,” I say. “You’ve been a ton of help.”
“Whatever,” says Jason.
“If I go missing, you’ll feel more than a tinge of regret, I guarantee it. You’ll think back on this night and wonder if there wasn’t more you could have done to prevent such a tragedy from occurring. It would behoove you to be a little more empathic, a bit more involved.”
“Do you want me to call security or not?” asks Jason. “Is this some kind of stupid joke? Kids get expelled for things like this.”
“Go bugger yourself,” I tell him.
“You know what that means, don’t play coy,” I say, turning away. I look around me, searching for an improvised weapon. No baseball bats, bamboo switches, nor heavy flashlights to be found among the scattered possessions of the studious. I’m about to exit and brave the campus defenseless when I see Chad Arroyo staring at me from a round table. He’s got on a massive pair of headphones that engulf his disheveled skull, and there are candy bar wrappers and books spread out across his table like the possessions of a refugee. Come hither, his look states, and I find my feet moving toward his table.
“Leona,” he says, his expression pleasant enough. “Care to go over Gibbons’ masterpiece?” He pushes Stalin’s Mustache over to me. “I’ve read most of it. It goes by pretty quickly.”
“Nonsense has a way of being utterly forgettable,” I reply.
“You don’t enjoy his stuff?” asks Chad.
“I wonder if he gets baked before he writes. That’s the only explanation I can come up with. Either that, or he’s an idiot.”
“I’ll tell him you said that.”
“Go ahead. He couldn’t think less of me,” I say.
“I’ve actually enjoyed most of his book. He’s certainly creative, you can’t deny that. ‘A thick upper lip is a burly vacuum for your radiant succubus love.’ Come on, that’s not bad. It’s humorous. And strangely erotic.” Chad smiles, and I’ve got to admit, he’s got a nice pair of teeth. I’m a stickler for teeth. White, yellow, straight, crooked. They all have to be there.
“What about ‘A penis is a penis is a penis?’ You’re telling me that’s brilliant?”
“We could talk for hours about that sentence,” replies Chad. “There are infinite layers of meaning hidden in those eight simple words.”
“That’s a conversation I don’t want to have.”
“You don’t like an argument unless you have an audience is what you mean,” he says.
“That’s not true. I’ll argue with anyone, anytime, anywhere. I am contentious. I have a chip on my shoulder. I am not pleasant.”
“I think you’ll be a great writer someday,” says Chad, and despite his bullshit, I find myself sitting down at his table, pawing over his books nonchalantly. Great Jones Street, Darma Bums, The Crying of Lot 49.
“You read all of those?” I ask.
“Mostly,” he says, shrugging. “I skim. I skip from clause to clause. My attention span grows shorter every day. Sometimes I wonder if I retain anything but television jingles and corporate slogans.”
“So you’ve been reading DeLillo.”
“And listening to the Dirtbombs,” he replies. “My band is going to open for them next month.”
“What do you play?”
“You look like a bassist.”
“I know enough to take that as an insult,” he says. “But that’s okay. We bassists get a bad rap.”
“It’s a guitar with four strings,” I tell him. “Six would be too many to handle.”
“I actually play a five-string, I’ll have you know.”
“What’s your band called?”
“The Part-time Poets. We’re all English majors.”
“What kind of music is it?”
“Indie post-punk ambient hardcore noise blues metal,” he says, rattling off genres like an auctioneer. “We play a little bit of everything.”
“Do you spit on the audience?” I ask.
“Every so often. When they deserve it. Our singer Reggie sometimes wears nothing but an old pair of basketball shorts. All true Part-time Poets fans have seen Reggie’s swinging balls.”
“What is he, like an old man? Do they just flop out down to his knees?”
“He’s a grad student working on his dissertation of Edwardian literature. Knowledgeable guy. Skinny little beanpole, you wouldn’t think of him as an Iggy Pop type.”
“I’ll tell you what. You walk me to the bus stop, and I’ll go to your show,” I say.
“Will you restrain yourself from punching me in the throat in the meantime?” he asks.
“Provided you don’t deserve it,” I reply.
“Why do you want me to walk you to the bus stop?”
“Some maniac in a Statue of Liberty costume chased me. The guy at the front counter didn’t take me seriously.”
“Wait, Leona Chaney is afraid of something? I thought you said I was a pussy.”
“Prove me wrong. And I never claimed to be fearless,” I say, somewhat regretfully.
“All right. I’ll walk you to the bus stop.” He jumps up and immediately pushes all of his books and trash into his book bag and then heads for the door. Outside, the night has lost its menace—the clouds have pulled across the moon, and the lamplights, which had flickered and failed while I was being pursued, shine their dim light, providing a clear path devoid of ghouls and costumed lunatics. I feel like a fool for asking Chad Arroyo to accompany me, Chad with his skinny jeans and hideous skater shoes. You’re not a helpless woman, says my inner voice. I have no response.
The bus pulls up right as we reach the stop. I mumble thanks to Chad and rush toward the doors. Through the windows I watch him stand there as we pull away, his thoughts doubtlessly rash and deviant behind his shaggy, helmet-like locks. I settle back into my seat and contemplate how I’ll find the will power to continue if Mom’s cooked spaghetti again.