The Serpent Papers: Echoes of Sunshine

Novel Excerpts by Jeff Schnader

The Serpent Papers:  Echoes of Sunshine

Synopsis

J-Bee, scion of a military family, is raised in a violent milieu in the 1960s where he commits a retaliatory act of brutality. While his best friend volunteers to fight in Vietnam, J-Bee is repulsed by his own violence and refuses to follow in his father’s military footsteps. Instead, he matriculates at Columbia in 1971 in order to seek redemption. In an era of counterculture, J-Bee is exposed to “drugs and sex and rock and roll” while grappling with the moral issues of the Vietnam War and his own violence.

Echoes of Sunshine

Christmas break arrived, and I elected to stay in the city. Without any school or family obligations, I could explore the landscapes of Gotham, a student on furlough, looking for random adventures flowing with women and rivers of beer. Nebraska was gone—God knows where—and I had the room to myself, sleeping at any hour, traipsing naked if I wanted. I could have women without any concern for Nebraska’s rights to his space.

But what women? Julie had gone home to New Jersey. And Margo was a woman who would call the shots as she saw fit. She wouldn’t be coming to my room on a whim.

Or would she? She was a junior; I was a freshman, and the gap between us was even bigger than that because she had taken a year or two off from school. She was experienced, smart and sophisticated, and I was energetic but disorganized, clearly at a disadvantage. I could imagine all I wanted, but the chasm between male-beast fantasy and student reality was far too great for me to straddle. I was no match for her in the eternal conflict of gender chess, but if I could land her, perhaps the equation could change; perhaps I might even make up ground or possibly gain an advantage.

But then reality slapped me. I was jealous. I was a puppy, and she was a woman who had hung with a rock star. I couldn’t compete with it, and I was angered, even grieved. Wallowing in my pathetic proto-anthropoid shell, I decided that I wasn’t even sure that I wanted her. So maybe I’d hop a subway and find some pub or dance palace, somewhere women might be looking for a raw, unpolished thing like me. The idea got me juiced. Thrust into the battle of life forces in which every man enlists, I had to find out where I stood in the hierarchy of desirability—I would take my place in the struggle to spawn or be damned.

Evening came, and I was ready to hop the Number One train to The Village. But going out my door, The Grateful Dead grabbed my ears—“I lit out from Reno”—and I followed the notes to Milo, sitting alone in his room, on a mattress, in his underwear with the black shortie tie around his neck.

“Greetings, J-Bee. Come in. Pull up—something. A chair, a mattress. How are you?”

“I’m not going to stay. I’m headed downtown.”

“I dig. But first, get your ass in here and sit down. Tell me the news of the world. Have a cup of tea and keep me company for a few. It’ll warm you up before you’re on your way. It’s cold out there. December, in case you forgot.”

Milo intrigued me. His name came up unexpectedly and more frequently than anyone else’s. He was a prep school bigwig with connections to everyone and everything. There were whisperings that he controlled Columbia’s drug trade and that he put the finger on people, who later disappeared. Often, he was seen with his shortie neckties next to the Dean of Students or playing touch football on South Field with the university president. He also had a steady stream of women dropping by his room. Bobbie Bornes worshipped him; MacNeish spoke of him with respect as if the walls would report him if he dared say anything negative, but Billy turned white at the mention of his name.

As he glided around the room, his naked muscular torso was impressively formidable. I didn’t think I was afraid of Milo because I wasn’t much afraid of anything, but I was wary. I had to be cautious, looking in his eyes, searching his depths for whatever and wherever his soul might be, wondering if what I would see would be luminous and sparkling or hideously deformed and rotten. So it was with special people; there was no middle ground. There were only the extremes, which sometimes blurred together.

“I have some black Turkish hash if you want.”

“What would the dean think if he knew his favorite protégé smoked hash?”

Milo laughed. It was good-natured, but I couldn’t tell if it was genuine or phony.

“Your father’s an admiral. MacNeish told me. He wants you in the Sachems.”

Milo was up and tiptoeing around in his skivvies, heating water and rummaging through some tins for just the right mixture of teas.

“We’ll see about the Sachems,” I said.

“You and me both, brother. I’m thinking that we’re cut from the same cloth.”

“You think?”

Suddenly, I was uncomfortably too close to Milo who was calling me kinsman and brewing tea like we had some kind of bond. This took me by surprise, and I discovered that I didn’t like us having anything in common. Vulnerability mixed with horror slithered up the back of my neck.

“I have an idea, J-Bee. Why don’t you come and work for me? Just so happens I have an opening at the moment.”

“What kind of work?”

“MacNeish says you’re a good guy. It’ll be good money.”

“I don’t really need money. What kind of work, anyway?”

“Selling marijuana or hash from time to time. Nothing major. What d’you think? Everybody needs money.”

“Not interested. But thanks.”

“You sure?”

“No interest,” I said.

“That’s cool, but too bad. Too bad for me. You’d be perfect—everyone likes you. Must be the Southern charm.”

“Listen. Milo. I don’t like tea, and I’m hitting the road. What’s with the tea, anyway?”

He looked up at me, and I could tell he read my face in a nanosecond.

“After I went to all this trouble to brew you something special?”

I was a fly in a web. My heart fluttered in apprehension as my limbs and voice went numb.

“Just stay where you are,” he said, pointing at me as I was bracing to hoist myself out of my chair. He moved close, just short of naked, and put his hand on my shoulder, pressing me back down. “Sit yourself. You don’t owe me anything. I’m giving you a gift. A libation. One straight man to another. Just unstress for a moment.”

He took the few steps back to where he was making the tea.

“Chill out,” he said over his shoulder. “Stay and have a sip. You take sugar?”

Standing in his underwear, intently focused on his task, he got out the sugar and stirred the tea with a spoon pinched between two fingers, the wrist of his other hand resting on his hip with those fingers fanned out. As I gazed on, mesmerized by the comedy he enacted, it struck me how unselfconscious and disarmingly innocuous he appeared. He then walked back to me and passed me the mug. It was a funny thing, but suddenly, as if I were being pulled by magic invisible strings, the tea beckoned, and I was drawn to it.

Milo sat down, cross-legged on his mattress, and smiled. Norman Greenbaum was on the stereo, singing— Spirit in the sky—that’s where I’m gonna go when I die— and I lifted the mug to my lips and drank. Orange spiced tea warmed my gullet; it was very good.

I drained it and bounced to my feet, ready to bolt out the door. Milo was gazing into space with an occasional, brief glance in my direction.

Such a weird fucker.

Then I felt a strangeness, a disorientation, a sensation I had never felt before. The hands of the clock on the wall began to spin, zipping around the dial and suddenly stopping at what I supposed was the real time. It was weird but fascinating. I glanced around to confirm that I was still in Milo’s room, with Milo still in it, sitting on his mattress, sipping his drink as Norman Greenbaum warbled.

I looked back at the clock, and now the hands were spinning propellers, so fast they blurred, and a rainbow of color was part of that blur. Then the hands stopped and swelled into thick, drooping cucumbers, which broke from their attachments at the center of the clock face, snapping off and clattering to the floor from their own weight.

I stared at them as they transformed into the heads of Laureen and Stankewicz. They rolled across the floor, staring at me, saying, “You did this! You did this!” Then they sprouted bodies, and I was hitting them with a bat, and Stankewicz was holding his head and shrieking, “He was just a little kid! He was just a little kid!” And Laureen was laughing and sputtering, “He was this little deaf kid! We never did anything wrong!” Now I was hitting them with a machete, and the machete was flashing silver in the moonlight. It was very beautiful; the glinting of the blade effervesced in a magnificent arc. The silver blurred into a shiny red-maroon as the machete ripped their heads off, and the heads were rolling away, blinking and babbling, “He was just this little kid!” while another voice was shouting, “No! No! No!” And it was my voice; I was shouting, and it was a horror. Then Bornes was standing there with a joint in his hand, smiling in a tee shirt with the lettering, “Make Love Not War.” He was giggling, “He was just this little kid! We went to school together, you know.” His face was one big laugh, his mouth wide open when suddenly punji sticks sliced through his body from behind, all their points sticking out the front of his neck, his torso, his arms and legs. Like Jesus on the cross with all his flesh quivering, his wings spread like a wriggling butterfly, pinioned to a board. He winked, “We went to school together, Milo and me. He was a very big shot.”

I was staggered. There was a bright fog in the room, and Milo emerged from the fog as Norman Greenbaum was singing, And when I die and am able to rest, and Milo said, “Sit down, J-Bee. It’s cold outside.”

I brought my hands up to either side of my face, and a voice shrieked, “Fucking Milo—what the hell have you done!”

There was laughter everywhere, and I saw cracked plaster faces, hundreds of them, pure white and stuck to the wall, laughing and shaking with laughter. A million outstretched fingers were pointing at me, and I knew I was going to die. But I wasn’t going to die with Milo. He did this to me. He had handed me the poisoned chalice, and I had drunk, so now I was going to die.

I tottered from the room. The halls were dark, and tiny arms were reaching out to touch me, begging for everything I had in the world, every bit of me, so that they could live for only a few minutes more, sucking away my energy, my soul and my life force. They were children, lining the walls, crying with their hands outstretched, tugging at me, fingering my shirt and clothes, reaching their hands into every crevice of my body and being. I moved forward to escape, but they hung on me, heavy like chains, dragging behind me, wailing little toddlers without their mothers, terror on their smeared faces, bloated bellies, spindly legs, boney knees, hanging onto me for dear life, dragging me down as I trudged.

I made it to the elevators and pressed every button I saw. I wouldn’t jump off a building; I wouldn’t lurch in front of a moving truck; I wouldn’t tumble onto the tracks in front of an onrushing train. I was tripping, and I would force myself to be a voyeur and see and feel the universe. I would surf the astral plane and attempt to live to the morning.

The elevator doors burst open. If it were an empty shaft, I knew I wouldn’t know the difference, and I could freefall twelve stories down and die on a cement slab in the basement, a shivering pile of pulp. But the odds were against this, and I took my step forward into potential oblivion.

Someone grabbed me by the shoulder from behind and said, “J-Bee, wait!”

I turned in panic and shoved him as hard as I could, sending him backpedalling. He slipped on the floor, falling on his rump in his skivvies and shortie black tie.

The elevator clanged shut. I was inside, lights fizzing and flickering, shadows shifting as the bottom fell out and I went into freefall. I was a monkey in a space capsule, plummeting to earth after a voyage to the stars. Spiraling down, down, down, a BB in an inverted, hyperbolic singularity, I was sucked into the great vortex at the event horizon, my death more than certain, the atoms of my bones and organs to be pulverized into a particulate plasma so that the history of the existence of what I was and where I had been, the body in which I had walked the planet would be vaporized into the gaseous soup of nothing randomness at the center of the great maelstrom, the hole at the bottom of the universe. I braced for my demise. The stars, suns, planetesimals, positrons, pions and quarks all circled above me, inaccessible, as I reached up to claw my way out of the abyss. But then a great weight pressed upon my legs, and the elevator braked, and the door bounced open, ejecting me onto dry land, a pedestrian once more in the great metropolis. I hit a wall full front, and a great wave broke on me in undulating pulsations of pain. Sweat poured off me and ran through the cuffs of my pants and onto the floor, gushing red as my life’s blood drained from me, flowing like water from an unplugged pipe. I was drenched over every inch of my body, pain throbbing in my head. A pulse was pounding in my veins, and these pulsations matched the throbbing of the pain in my head, and I knew what it meant: it meant I was alive! A beacon shone down from heaven, and voices sang to me, telling me to go see Billy Wing. If he were here, he would guide me through the maelstrom and be my trip’s companion.

I trudged the campus to his dorm, Hartley Hall, dragging a flood of stains in my wake until I came to a very dark hallway where I faced three growling dogs and smelled the stagnant, deep-rotted smell of death. Chirping, swirling bats led me through a tunnel of deep darkness, the fluid of Lethe lapping at my ankles. Shrieking faces pierced the shadows with fluorescent bulbs buzzing and sputtering dangerously from loose wires hanging from overhead. A black portal loomed in front of me, black from both an absence of being and an absence of light, and I pounded on it with fists. The crying bats behind me in the air met with a scrabbling of rat claws from the inside of the portal which was Billy Wings’ door. The door hissed, exhaling a long shushing rattle accompanied by a fetid aerosol, a white vapor that wafted from the door, sticking to me like gentle ash fall of the tiniest particulates, stinking with such intensity that I could smell them in my skin. Such was the power of this intense and foul aroma that the lining of my nose and mouth caved into my face, the infection seeping into my frontal lobes while I flickered in and out of consciousness, a strobe light gone mad.

On the fringe of suffocation, every nerve in my body screeching in agony, I felt a massive presence as Death stepped forward and announced itself at Billy Wing’s door. I fell backwards from the full force of the hallucination, knowing now that the acid was tearing my reality to shreds. This great presence used all of my senses at its disposal to possess me so that my only escape was to find my legs and reach the crisp air outside. Without Billy Wing, I was lost in the oblivion.

A shimmering half-crushed face with one eye hovered above me in the white sticky cloud that had formed under the sputtering lights, and I saw it was my brother. “Go, J-Bee!” he said. “Run! Escape this awful place!” I croaked, “But I can’t leave you!” He said, “I am not real. I am not here. Go J-Bee! Go my brother! Will yourself onto your feet and flee the Lord of the Flies before he clutches for you—because he is here!

###

There was no sound above the hush of the snowfall, and I found myself face down on hard ground, rimed with crust under softer crystals. My right eye was iced shut between the lashes, and the right side of my face was numb. I touched it with my fingertips, but still no sensation.

I was lying on Columbia’s South Field. I had no idea what time it was, but it was dark, and my clothes were damp. I sat up, and snow sprinkled off in a powder. The sky was charcoal and purple with occasional orange flashes, reflecting off the clouds. New York was on fire; the buildings were on fire; Columbia was on fire all around me. I was on fire. I was a burning monk; orange flames burst from my skin which seared in pain. The snow kept falling, but it was cold, not hot. I lifted my hands and touched the crown of my head, but it wasn’t bald like a monk’s. My head was cold; I was cold, and I was no longer on fire.

I took the One Train, but I don’t know how. It was a roaring metal tube, a catacomb with an infernal kettledrum sound, a dancing rhythm clicking and clacking, bound to Greenwich Village or maybe to Omaha. The lights got dimmer the faster it moved. Bulbs on the catacomb walls, shooting past the train, crossed shadows with bars of light on the grimy faces of anonymous riders, sitting inert on plastic train benches. I watched them, their faces mutating into random shapes and colors with expressions as frozen as hewn Mayan gargoyles.

I debarked at 4th Street, Sheridan Square, where a lone man in rags played a harmonica. He sat on the station platform, on the opposite side of the tracks, propped against the wall, both his legs lopped off at the knees. He wore a khaki shirt with “US Army” across it, his two crutches beside him and a red bandanna around his head. He shook a tin cup as people passed by. “Pencils!” he shouted. “I was a soldier! Look at me now! Buy some Goddamned pencils to help a fuckin’ vet!”

Then he laughed a loose phlegmy sound and lit a cigarette.

When I climbed the subway stairs to the street, I felt him behind me. I turned, and he was there, standing with no legs on crutches. He said, “Brother, will you buy some pencils? Help a fuckin’ veteran? I have no place to live. I have no life. Help me, for the love of God. Have you got no humanity?” My voice croaked something inaudible, but I knew what it said: “Of course, I’ll help. I’ll give you money.” He coughed and inched closer. His breath was on my face. I could smell his rotting teeth, but it was stronger than rotting teeth. Then I saw it was Bloom, and he had medals on his chest. He said, “The medals don’t mean anything. They ripped my heart out and gave me a bunch of tin.”

He tore the medals off and threw them onto the ground. They morphed into seeds which suddenly sprang to life as little crouching Asian men. These men stood up all at once, surrounding us with pungi sticks in their hands. I heard a scream and felt the blood rush to my head. I was screaming, and the men were laughing. They sliced Bloom’s chest open and ripped his heart out, leaving a large, dark bloody hole in its place. One of them held his beating heart; another pinned a cross to his chest. Then they all laughed—even Bloom was laughing. “These gooks are my brothers; whatever I have is theirs. We owe the bastards. We ruined their country, and they can have my heart in a bowl of rice. They’ve paid for it with the lives of their children. I don’t want your money, but I need another heart. Give me yours—help a dying veteran!”

I didn’t know if he was serious. I wasn’t sure if I was hallucinating.

I turned around and ran. I ran into people on the sidewalks. I ran into parked cars. I ran until I couldn’t run, and when I turned, Bloom and his gooks were gone.

I slowed to a jog, but I didn’t stop. Bloom had to die for the Japanese, Koreans, Vietnamese—somebody. He had thrown in his lot with them years ago. But not me; I wasn’t going to die for them. Maybe I had to die; maybe I was going to die. Maybe there was death all around me, but please God! Not for a useless cause. Not for tin mines or the Domino Theory. Not so America might keep an untarnished war record. Let the Vietnamese unite their country, choose whatever government they want. I wasn’t going to stop them. I wasn’t going to lay my body in a rice paddy so my carcass could be a meal for rats, a sacrifice on an altar for some abstraction or ideal. I wasn’t going to do it!

I was walking. Although the hallucinations were less intense, faces on the street still terrified me, and buildings moaned and twisted in the snow-dusted wind. Doorways still bellowed at me like giant, obscene mouths, beckoning to “Enter and Despair.”

At the corner of 4th Street and Seventh Avenue, I sat on the sidewalk to reflect. Voices interrupted my thoughts, and I was visited by horrors, throngs of souls akin to my own who were maimed and disemboweled, crawling inch by inch through the mud to survive, dying bewildered and never knowing why. Never knowing or seeing the beauty of things as I did as I lived in my small, gifted life. This painful disparity went straight to my heart—such a weird lottery, blindly determined by terrific world forces while paradoxically governed by the empty mathematics of entropy.

I had been sitting for what felt like an hour, but maybe it was only a minute. I had melded with the landscape. I was brickwork; I was asphalt; I was a chunk of the pavement. I had hit bottom—icy cold, the surroundings had consumed me. Faces came at me, out of the dark, smeared with rich reds and pinks, contorted with pain and ferocity. Colored auras haloed their bodies like infrared maps of heat— they could have been star-children or perhaps just aliens, yet somehow I knew they were merely manifestations of pedestrians walking past, and I had the curiosity to marvel at the strangeness radiated by these ordinary beings.

Abruptly, something deep inside me—a ragged hairy beast locked away, chained for a lifetime to dungeon walls—was roaring, its sound percolating up from the depths of my subconscious into my waking state. I felt this beast shake off his chains, stretch his arms and legs, and burst forth from his shadowy cell. Stupefied, I pulsated now with renewed love for life. As cars and people danced down the street, I sat spellbound at the vivacious parade. My nostrils burst with aromas of cloves and honey. I was engulfed by a passion to show my love to everything I witnessed. I had magic within me, and I saw the beautiful world all around. People moving past were grotesque, but they were also magnificent, a gift for me to witness. The buildings were monoliths, heavy but wondrous. I saw three women huddled together, murmuring, and they were Les Femmes D’Avignon, dogfaced, flesh-toned, striped and angular. I stopped and stared at them, tingling in my skin, enraptured, my eyes feasting on their physical beauty, my mind abjectly grateful to be living inside such a vibrant and colorful painting. I felt myself sobbing to be so privileged amongst all living things to see and wonder at such a life as mine.

So I sat against a wall on the frozen sidewalk, wondering where new steps might take me. My breath billowed steam, chilling into crystals, refracting the storefront neons and passing headlights into millions of rainbow shards, hanging in the air as a flickering, shimmering plasma. I was still tripping—I knew I had to find refuge out of the cold, but instead I closed my eyes, knowing I might freeze to death in the gutter. I had no concept of time, but I felt the presence of Lady Luck shining down upon me. With the back of my head against cold brick and my eyes rolled up in my head, I was still amongst the living but in danger of dreaming my way to oblivion.

“J-Bee?”

It was a soft voice, a gentle voice, and it sounded like wind chimes on a sunny veranda.

“J-Bee?”

I knew it was cold, but my body told me I was warm with a Southern heat. It made no sense except that I was tired, and it was hot, and I would give in to the overwhelmingly heavy need to slumber, leaning against the brick wall.

“J-Bee! Get up! Wake up! Are you okay?”

I was being shaken, and I opened my eyes. The image was bleary; I saw shapes and then a face with a halo of shaggy hair, cascading down to a pair of shoulders.

I heard a rasping voice, my voice, croaking, “Hey Margo— what’re you doing here?”

###

Sun streamed through the lacy window curtains, and I was alone in a warm, soft bed, the covers pulled over my head.

Fucking Milo! Thank God I’m alive!

I had vague feelings about where I was. It wasn’t my bed, but I didn’t care where I was or whose bed I was sleeping in. I had thought I was dead and buried, and I was thankful to be among the living. With such beautiful sunlight, whatever did anything matter?

I remembered Death outside Billy Wing’s door, its rotten smell in my nostrils. It didn’t seem real to me now. Had it been real? Or had it been some bizarre reverie, invented by my brain, with no meaning? How could experience mean nothing? Even if illusory, it had to mean something.

“Oh—you up?”

It was that jangling voice. It was music in my head.

“Margo?”

“That’s right. Or don’t you remember?”

It was a big bed, king-sized. I rolled over, and there she was, standing in the doorway, draped in a striped djellaba, feet in flip-flops, a cup of coffee in her hand. I smelled a hint of cloves and cinnamon, kitcheny smells, mixed with the aroma of java.

“How the hell did I get here?”

She giggled, “Do you remember anything?

Murky visions. Hallucinations. Deep psychosis. Things had happened, and I remembered. But in spite of remembering, I wasn’t sure which parts were real and which were not.

“I hope you do because I want to hear it all. You seemed to be on some kind of drug. Do you take drugs, J-Bee?”

She looked at me, wide-eyed. She asked the question, and, what was different, she really wanted to know how I’d answer.

“No, I don’t do drugs.”

But this wasn’t right.

“I’ve smoked marijuana.”

“That wasn’t marijuana last night.”

“No, it wasn’t.”

“So, what was it? Something’s happened to you. Do you feel like you can tell me? Maybe it’s none of my business, but it feels like I’m allowed to ask.”

Where would I begin? I had discovered something. I could tell Margo because she might help me uncover its meaning, and uncovering its meaning, solving the riddle, sifting through last night’s wreckage suddenly became urgent.

“It must’ve been LSD.”

“LSD?”

“Something’s happened; not sure I can explain. Don’t know if I can put my finger on it, but it’s as if my eyes are suddenly open, as if they were shut before. Somehow, everything now looks—feels—different.”

I had seen the beginning and the end of everything, all at once. I had seen incomparable beauty; I had seen unparalleled misery. I had witnessed Evil—an unbearable smell—and it knocked me down as it came.

“I saw Death last night. I know you’ll think I’m ridiculous, but it’s the God’s honest truth. And now I feel changed. I thought I was going to die— no, I knew I was going to die. But here I am, and now everything’s all new.”

Everything was wonderful: the sun was shining, and I was in a room with Margo. I was in her bedroom, in her bed. Everything now had to be reevaluated; I needed a new perspective. I wasn’t quite sure how things had changed; I didn’t quite know what it all meant, but I felt an unreasonable optimism and happiness. It felt like a good start. I glanced at her, but she didn’t move or speak. She looked me in the eyes but said nothing.

“God, Margo—say something.”

“Well, yes, you may have changed. You don’t sound like the J-Bee I recall. Not that I’ve known you very well, but you sound serious. You sound more—”

She hesitated.

“More what?”

“More focused. More clear-minded.”

“Focused? Lost, more like.”

“I could be wrong, but you seem to be more purposeful. Driven by questions. Lost maybe, but there’s a spark there. I think you’re wrong about not knowing where to begin; I think you’ve already begun.”

I sat up, and I had a good look at her with her arms folded, leaning against the door frame. My head felt scrambled, fogged, yet I was evolving in some enigmatic way. And now here comes this woman with a voice, and she was making sense. She was watching out for me, like she cared, and it made me feel grounded. She told me I had direction and purpose, and although I didn’t know where or what, it gave me an odd confidence and a tang of self-belief, which made me itch to move forward. And then, almost not to be believed, through all this ran the fact that I was in this woman’s bed.

I suddenly had new questions.

“Did I sleep here last night?”

“Evidently.”

“And did you sleep here with me?”

“I slept in the bed, yes.”

I couldn’t remember a thing about it, and she was giving me the beady eye. How could I not remember sleeping with Margo? How could having sex with a goddess have made no impact? I must be cursed.

She read my mind.

“But no, we didn’t have sex, in case you’re wondering. You were whimpering, having a bad time until the effects of the drug wore off, and you finally settled down. I just kept you company. Besides, I had nowhere else to go—this happens to be my flat.”

She was smiling, and I felt heat for her unlike for any other woman.

“You were like the little brother I never had.”

I groaned out loud.

“You sure know how to kill a guy.”

“I’ve had plenty of practice,” she giggled. “But seriously, I’m kidding. You’re not like a little brother, but there’s something else about you, and I’ll have to think about it before I can explain.”

You’re not like anyone I’ve ever known.”

She looked down at the floor, suppressing a smile, but when she looked up she couldn’t contain it, and she beamed. “You’re a lot younger than I am, much less experienced than the men I’m used to. But I’d be lying if I said that I’ve seen your charms before in other men.”

She stopped there, but I was hungry to hear more. “Go on,” I said.

“Well—since you ask. After you settled down and slept, feeling you next to me in bed was oddly comforting. It seems that you’re a man who comes across as steady enough to make a woman feel a certain humming. A warmth. Maybe I felt secure. I don’t know— as I said, I’ll have to think about it.”

Margo’s romantic experience in the past, with other men, made me nauseated. Whether she knew it or not, she was playing me like a musical instrument—perhaps a simple thing like a single hollow pipe—and she was calling the tune.

###

Margo lived on 107th Street, so I hiked back to campus on 114th. Christmas break was ending, and I expected an increase in campus activity when students returned from holiday. As I entered the campus gates, I saw a throng on the Van Am Quad in front of Hartley Hall. Students were milling around in the cold, and a dozen New York City cops stood guard at the doors, talking on radios and chatting with campus security. On 116th Street, in the middle of campus, an ambulance sat silently, its red lights circling.

I went over to Hartley to watch the drama. I had never seen cops on campus. It was a rare event, and I was drawn there to witness the shadowy traces of possible crime. A cop and a campus security guard, both toting guns, talked softly to one other. I sat on the steps with my back to the pair, perking my ears like a cat.

“It was me,” said the guard. “I was the one who responded to the complaint. A student called it in. The smell in the hallway, outside the room, was enough to KO an elephant.”

“Seems it took a while to report. How come no one else smelt it?”

“It’s Christmas break. The place empties out. You know, the students had all gone home.”

“The kid must’ve been dead for a week. Maybe two.”

“You think?”

“That’s what forensics said. Body’s pretty bad. Decomposed. One hundred seventy pounds of aromatic rot.”

“You’re telling me! I thought I would pass out when I opened the door. The smell was like to asphyxiate me. He was at his desk, slumped in a chair. The syringe was hanging out his arm.”

“Reclusive hippie kid. Dabbling in drugs, overdid it, and killed himself. That’s one explanation. Accidental suicide. But they’ll have to rule out foul play. The M. E.’ll decide.”

A plainclothesman walked up.

“Officer, there’s kids walking around. Keep a lid on it.”

“Sorry, Lieutenant.”

“Lieutenant,” I blurted, standing up and turning to face him. “Who died?”

The lieutenant looked me up and down, narrowing his eyes. He was thinking about it. “We have an ID on the kid, but I’m not saying any other details. We’ve been here four hours, and we’re packing it in. Body’s coming out right now, and then we’re out of here. If you want a full statement, you can come down to the station later and talk to the desk sergeant about what you need. Boy’s name was, well—we’ll release a statement later.”

I knew it all with certainty when it was printed the next day in the Columbia Daily Spectator.

BODY FOUND IN HARTLEY HALL

“Dead body found in Hartley Hall… Undiscovered during the weeks of Christmas break… Smell emanating from the victim’s dormitory door… Complaint called to campus security by a returning student who said the odor was unbearable… Columbia Security guards responded immediately, entering the room with handkerchiefs over their faces… Guards, and later the police, New York’s finest, were seen retching while examining and bagging the body…

“One officer was quoted, saying, ‘Just some hippie kid who shot himself up and killed himself. OD’d by accident. It’s a case for the New York Medical Examiner.’

“The victim has been identified as William Humboldt Wing.”

The smell I remembered must have been my friend’s corpse, rotting behind the door as I knocked. I dropped all thought of what I was doing and lumbered forward like a sleepwalker to a staircase, pulled by invisible strings, instinctual forces. Then somehow I was there, in that same hallway, lingering, trembling, living a moment of dreamy anticipation and hope. There was a familiar smell in my nostrils, the same smell of decay I remembered from the night before when I stood at Billy Wing’s door.

Out of nowhere came a tweeting in my brain, an echo of LSD. I heard a rumbling voice addressing me, shaking the walls around me, speaking a language of the damned, ushering in a swarm of flies which hissed and buzzed through my ears and into my head. The low-pitched, vibrating voice became so loud that it shook the walls until I lost my footing and fell. The redolence of rotting flesh seared my throat, making it swell to the point of closure and asphyxiation. Lying on my belly I was a mere lump of clay, a foe of the evil forces arrayed against me, and I was powerless to protect myself, paralyzed by inescapable horror. I found myself on all fours, and a sound was erupting from the fear within me, a long unintelligible rasping howl.

A door flung open, and a young man stepped out.

“You okay?”

It was so simple, so mundane, and yet these two words broke the spell which had taken hold of me. The rumbling and odors were suddenly gone.

“Yeah,” I said. “Yeah. I’ll be okay”

“You sure? What are you doing on the floor? You look terrible.”

“It’s an echo of a bad trip. And Billy Wing was my friend.”

“Yeah, it’s too bad what happened to Billy.”

He stretched out a hand, and I took it. He pulled me onto my feet.

“We were all shocked that he would use heroin. We knew him, but we couldn’t believe he was shooting drugs. I mean, he studied all the time! We saw him walking around in a towel to go to the showers— he had no tracks on his arms or anything. He was very serious about his schoolwork and wanted to go to grad school. He talked about it a lot. A couple of guys down the hall are saying he was murdered. But how could they know? No one was here over break except Billy. Some guys are saying he kept talking about someone threatening him, but no one wants to tell the police. Everyone’s spooked. One guy mentioned a name he heard Billy mention— Manuel or Miguel. Ever heard of him?”

“Thanks,” I said, “for helping me up.”

“It’s cool. Why don’t you go down to the bathroom and freshen up. You look like you saw a ghost.”

I thanked him again, stumbled down the hall to the bathroom and stood facing the mirrors, over a line of sinks. I ran cold water and rubbed my face, feeling the stimulation of the cold and wet.

I saw myself, truly saw myself, for the first time in over a month. I had been living a life of the mind and neglecting my physical self. My hair was longer, stringy. I hadn’t shaved for three or four days, unmasking a heavy stubble. I was metamorphosing from a raw, undeveloped grub into something new. I could see the tangible alteration, as if the change in my mind was triggering a change in my outward appearance, a progressive accretion of some new persona.

In the mirror my face contorted, the colors smeared, and my image shimmered, changing me into something else. I saw the face of Milo where my own face should have been, and I knew right away what this meant: it meant Billy’s death was murder, and it meant Milo did it. The rotten smell was Milo’s signature and nothing else. I could discern no single thread of morality or empathy anywhere stitched into the fabric of his decaying soul. It was Milo who dosed me, and it was Milo who killed Billy Wing. He may have been there when Billy went down, or he may not. He may have sent his cronies, who stuck a needle in Billy Wing’s arm, or he may have done it himself. But ultimately it was Milo who OD’d poor Billy and then left him there to rot and stink so that days later, I could smell him outside his door while, thanks to Milo again, I was tripping my shredded brain to oblivion.

About the Author

Jeff Schnader

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My impetus for writing this novel is that in 1972, I was a participant at Columbia University when students held massive demonstrations and were beaten by the NY Tactical Police in full battle regalia. I am now a physician and Professor of Medicine. I trained at Johns Hopkins and was a scientist for 25 years. I was a journal editor and have authored 50 publications, including in the New Engl J Med. I am inspired by Jane Austen (read every word she ever wrote), the angst in Poe, Orwell’s journalistic style and Fielding’s humor and plot. Currently, I am writing another novel.