You couldn't find Paul? Charlie asks once I've caught up.
He didn't want my help.
But when I mention what I overheard outside, Charlie looks at me as if I shouldn't have let him go. Someone stops beside us to greet Gil, and Charlie turns to me.
Did Paul go after Curry? he asks.
I shake my head. Bill Stein.
Are you guys coming to the reception? Gil calls out, sensing a quick getaway. We could use the turnout.
Sure, I say, and Gil seems pacified. His mind is elsewhere; we're returning to his element.
We'll have to avoid Jack Parlow and Kelly-they only want to talk about the ball, he says, returning to our sides. But it shouldn't be bad.
He leads us down the steps into the pale blue courtyard, where all the tracks Curry and Paul made in the snow have blown over. The tents are brimming with students, and almost immediately I remember how futile it is trying to avoid anyone with Gil around. We march through the snow to a canopy almost beneath the chapel, but he exerts an inescapable social gravity.
First to come is the blond girl from the door.
Tara, how are you? Gil says graciously when she arrives beneath the canvas roof. A lot more excitement than you were expecting, huh?
Charlie has no interest in her company. To avoid a scene, he concerns himself at the table, where the silver dispensers are warming fresh hot chocolate.
Tara, Gil says, you know Tom, don't you?
She finds a polite way of saying she doesn't.
Ah, well, Gil says lightly. Different classes.
It takes me a second to realize he's referring to sophomores and seniors.
Tom, this is Tara Pierson, a member of the 2001 section, he continues, seeing that Charlie is avoiding us. Tara, this is my good friend Tom Sullivan.
The introduction serves only to embarrass. No sooner has Gil finished speaking than Tara finds a moment when we can talk out of his sight and points at Charlie.
I'm so sorry about what I said to your friend back there, she begins. I had no idea who you guys were…
And on, and on. Her point seems to be that we deserve better treatment than the other nobodies she's never met because Gil and I brush our teeth over the same sink. The longer she talks, the more I wonder how she wasn't laughed out of Ivy. There is a legend-true or not, I don't know— that sophomores like Tara, who have nothing to recommend them but their looks, sometimes find their way into the membership thanks to a special process called third-floor bicker. They're invited up to the secretive third floor of the club and told that they won't be admitted without some special show of willingness. I can only guess at the exact nature of the deed, and Gil, of course, denies that anything like this process even exists. But I suppose that's the magic of a myth like third-floor bicker: the more unspoken it's left, the more unspeakable it becomes.
Tara must guess what I'm thinking, or maybe she just notices I'm not paying attention anymore, because she finally comes up with some excuse and minces off into the snow. Good riddance, I think, watching her slink over to another tent, hair flopping in the wind.
I spot Katie. She's standing by the outer edge of the tent on the opposite side, tired of talking. The cup of hot chocolate in her hand is still steaming, and her camera is strung around her neck like a charm. It takes me a second to figure out what she's looking at. A few months ago, I would've suspected the worst, searching for the elusive other man in her life, the one who found time for her when I spent nights with the Hypnerotomachia. Now I know better. It's just the chapel she's fixed in her sights. It looms like a cliff at the edge of a white sea, a photographer's dream.
There's a curious thing about attraction, something I'm only starting to learn. The first time I met Katie, I thought one look at her would stop traffic. Not everyone agreed with me (Charlie, preferring meatier women, liked Katie's determination more than her looks), but I was smitten. We dressed up for each other-our best clothes, our best manners, our best stories-until I came to the conclusion that it must be my two years of seniority and my friendship with the president of her eating club that lent me what small mystique I had, holding on to such a catch. In those days the idea of touching her hand or smelling her hair was enough to send me sweating to a cold shower. We were each other's trophies, and we spent our days on pedestals.
Since those early weeks I've taken her off the shelf. She's returned the favor. We argue because I keep my room too warm, and because she sleeps with her window open; she chides me for getting seconds of dessert-because someday, she says, even men pay for their petty transgressions. Gil jokes that I've been domesticated, humoring me with the notion that I used to be a wild thing. The fact is, I was made for husbandry. I turn up my thermostat when I'm not cold, and eat dessert when I'm not hungry, because in the shadow of every admonishment from Katie is the hint that she won't tolerate these things in the future, because there will be a future. The fantasies I used to have, powered by the electricity of potential between strangers, are weaker things now. I like her best the way she is in this courtyard.
Her eyes are tensed, the sign that a long day is drawing to a close. Her hair is down, and the gusts are playing in the loops of it by her shoulder. It wouldn't bother me just to keep watching from afar, soaking her in. But when I step forward, decreasing our distance, she sees me and gestures to join her.
What was all that about? she asks. Who was that in the lecture?
Curry? She takes my hand and places it in hers. Her bottom lip curls between her teeth. Is Paul okay?
I think so.
Silence creeps in for a moment as we watch the crowd. Men in canvas anoraks are offering their jackets to underdressed girlfriends. Tara, the blonde from the table, has witched a stranger out of his.
Katie motions back toward the auditorium. So what'd you think?
Of the lecture?
She nods, beginning to fix her hair in a bun.
A little gory. The ogre gets no compliments from me.
But more interesting than usual, she says, extending her cup of hot chocolate. Hold this?
She wraps the back of her hair into a knot and strikes it through with two long pins from her pocket. The easy dexterity of her hands, shaping something she can't see, reminds me of the way my mother used to fix my father's ties while standing behind him.
What's wrong? she says, reading my expression.
Nothing. Just thinking about Paul.
He's going to finish on time?
The thesis deadline. Even now, she keeps an eye on the Hypnerotomachia. Tomorrow night she can lay my old mistress to rest.
Another silence follows, this one less welcome. Just as I try to think of something to change the subject-something about her birthday, about the gift that's waiting for her back at the room-bad luck strikes. It arrives in the form of Charlie. After twenty circuits around the refreshment table, he has finally decided to join us.
I came in late, he announces. Can I get a recap?
Of all the odd things about Charlie, the oddest is how he can be a fearless gladiator among men, but a blithering clod around women.
A recap? Katie says, entertained.
He plunks a petit four into his mouth, then another, scanning the crowd for prospects. You know. How classes are going. Who's dating who. What you're doing next year. The usual.
Katie smiles. Classes are fine, Charlie. Tom and I are still dating. She gives him a reproving look. And I'm only going to be a junior. I'll still be here next year.
Ah, Charlie says, because he has never remembered her age. Producing a cookie from his gallon-size hands, he searches for the right conversational idiom between a sophomore and a senior. Junior year is probably the hardest, he says, opting for the worst one: advice. Two junior papers. Prereqs for your major. And long distance with this guy, he says, pointing at me with one hand, feeding with the other. Not easy. He rolls his tongue through his cheek, savoring the taste of everything he's got in his mouth, ruminating our future besides. Can't say I'm jealous.
He pauses, giving us time to digest. In a miracle of economy, Charlie has made things worse in less than twenty words.
Do you wish you'd been able to run tonight? he says now.
Katie, still hoping for a silver lining, waits for him to explain. More accustomed to the way his mind works, I know better.
The Nude Olympics, he says, ignoring my signal to change the subject. Don't you wish you could've run?
The question is a masterstroke. I can see it coming, but I'm powerless to defend against it. To show his grasp of the fact that Katie is a sophomore, and possibly of the fact that she lives in Holder, Charlie is asking if my girlfriend is upset because she couldn't parade naked in front of the rest of campus tonight. The underlying compliment, I think, is that a woman with Katie's physical assets must be dying to show them off.
Charlie seems to have no premonition of the myriad ways this could go wrong.
Katie's face tightens, spotting his train of thought a mile down the tracks. Why? Should I be?
There just aren't a lot of sophomores I know who would pass up the chance, he says. And from his more diplomatic tone, he must sense that he's misstepped.
What chance would that be? Katie presses.
I try to help him, searching for euphemisms of drunken nudity, but my mind is a flock of pigeons, fluttering away. All my thoughts are shit and feathers.
The chance to shed their clothes once in four years? Charlie fumbles.
Slowly, Katie looks both of us over. Sizing up Charlie's steam-tunnel attire, and my back-of-the-closet outfit, she wastes no words.
Well, then, I guess we're even. Because there aren't a lot of seniors I know who would pass up the chance to change their clothes once in four years.
I fight the impulse to press at the wrinkles in my shirt.
Charlie, reading the leaves, ducks out for another pass at the table. His job here is done.
You guys are a couple of real charmers, Katie says. You know that?
She tries to sound amused, but there's a hint of heaviness she can't hide. She reaches up and runs her fingers through my hair, trying to change things, when an Ivy woman arrives before us, arm in arm with Gil. From the apologetic look on his face, I understand that this is the Kelly he told us to avoid.
Tom, you know Kelly Danner, don't you?
Before I can say that I don't, Kelly's face fills with rage. She's focused on something in the far corner of the courtyard.
Those stupid shits, she curses, throwing her paper cup to the ground. I knew they would try to pull something like this tonight.
We all turn. There, marching toward us from the direction of the eating clubs, comes a troupe of men in tunics and togas.
Charlie hoots, stepping toward us for a better view.
Tell them to get out of here, Kelly demands, to no one in particular.
The group comes into focus through the snow. Now it's clear that this is just what Kelly feared: a choreographed stunt. Each toga bears a series of letters across its chest, written in two distinct rows. Though I can't make out the lower row yet, the top one is composed of two letters: T.I.
T.I. is the common abbreviation for Tiger Inn, the third oldest of the eating clubs, and the only place on campus where the lunatics run the asylum. Rarely does Ivy seem so vulnerable as when T.I. conceives of a new practical joke to try on its venerable sister club. Tonight is the perfect opportunity.
Stray laughter breaks out in the courtyard, but I have to squint to see why. The entire group has disguised itself in long gray beards and wigs. All around us, the closest tents are flooding with students clamoring for a view.
After a brief huddle, the men from T.L unravel themselves into a long, single line. As they do, I finally make out the second row of words written across each toga. Every man's chest bears a single word, and every word, I see, is a name. The name on the tallest of them, standing in the middle, is Jesus. To his left and right are the twelve apostles, six on each side.
Already the laughter and cheers have grown louder.
Kelly clenches her jaw. I can't tell from Gil's expression whether he's trying to stifle his amusement so as not to offend her, or trying to create the impression that he's entertained by it, when he's not.
The Jesus figure steps forward from the row and raises his arms to silence the audience. Once the courtyard is quiet, he steps back, utters some command, and the entire line breaks into choral formation. Jesus conducts from the side. Producing a pitch pipe from his toga, he blows a single note. The sitting row responds by humming it. The kneeling row joins in with a perfect third. Finally, just as the two rows seem to be losing their breath, the standing apostles contribute a fifth.
The crowd, impressed by the preparation that has gone into this, claps and cheers once more.
Nice toga! someone in a nearby tent yells.
Jesus swivels his head, raises an eyebrow in the direction of the sound, and returns to conducting. Finally, raising his conductor's baton three times in the air with a flick of the wrist, he throws his arms back theatrically, sweeps them forward again, and the chorus explodes into song. Their voices, to the tune of the Battle Hymn of the Republic, carry through the courtyard.
We've come to tell the story of the college of the Lord,
But the grapes of wrath fermented in the vintage where
So excuse us if we're all a little drunk out of our gourd.
We saints go marching on.
Glory, Glory, we're the fossils
Of all the Nazarene apostles.
If it weren't for Christ we'd be
Just fishermen from Galilee,
So listen to our tale.
Now, Jesus was your average ancient Middle Eastern male.
He went to public school, but had a special holy grail:
He'd rather burn in hell than go to Harvard or to Yale,
So the choice was pretty clear.
Glory, Glory, God convinced Him,
Jesus Christ, He went to Princeton.
He made the right decision
When he majored in Religion
And the rest is history.
So Christ arrived on campus in the fall of year 18,
The Biggest Man on Campus that the world had ever seen.
It made the other eating clubs turn jealous Ivy green
When Jesus chose T.I.
Now two apostles from the first row stand and step forward. The first unravels a scroll that reads Ivy and the second unravels one that reads Cottage. After thrusting their noses in the air at one another and prancing self-importantly around Jesus, the song continues.
Chorus: Glory, Glory, Jesus bickered,
All the snooty heathens snickered.
Ivy: We couldn’t h take a Jew;
Cottage: A carpenter won't do;
Chorus: So the Lord, He joined T.I.
Kelly clenches her fists so tightly she almost draws blood.
Now the twelve apostles emerge from the choral formation into a kick line and, with Jesus at the center, lock arms, pump their legs deftly into the air, and conclude:
Jesus, Jesus, He's a fun guy.
Thanks to Him we're all alumni.
There's nothing so divine
As turning water into wine,
His truth is marching on.
With that, all thirteen men turn around and, with choreographed precision, raise the backs of their togas to reveal a message written across their buttocks, one letter per cheek:
HAPPY EASTER FROM THE TIGER INN
A rowdy combination of wild clapping, boisterous cheering, and stray boos ensues. Then, just as the thirteen men are preparing to leave, a loud cracking sound comes from across the courtyard, followed by the crash of glass breaking.
Heads turn in the direction of the noise. On the top story of Dickinson, the history department building, a light flickers on, then off. One of the windowpanes has been shattered. In the darkness, I can see movement.
A T.I. apostle begins to cheer loudly.
What's going on? I ask. Squinting, I can make out a person near the broken glass.
This isn't funny, Kelly growls at Judas, who has drifted within earshot.
He snubs his nose.
What's he doing? she demands, pointing at the window.
Judas thinks for a second.
He's going to piss. He laughs tipsily, then repeats, He's going to piss out the window.
Kelly storms after the Jesus figure.
What the hell's going on, Derek? she says.
The figure in the office appears, then vanishes. From his jerkiness I sense he's drunk. At one moment he seems to be pawing the broken glass, then he disappears.
I think there's someone else up there, Charlie says.
Suddenly the entire body of the man comes into view. He's backed against the lead panes of the window.
He's gonna piss, Judas repeats.
From the remaining apostles there arises a sloppy cry of Jump! Jump!
Kelly wheels on them. Shut up, goddamn it! Go get him down!
Again the man disappears from sight.
I don't think he's from T.I., Charlie says with concern. I think that's some drunk guy from the Nude Olympics.
But the man was wearing clothes. I look into the darkness, trying to make out the shapes. This time, the man doesn't return.
Beside me, the stewed apostles boo.
Jump! one of them cries again, but Derek pushes him back and tells him to stay quiet.
Get the hell out of here, Kelly orders.
Easy, girl, Derek says, and begins rounding up the stray disciples.
Gil watches all of this with the same inscrutable look of amusement he was wearing when the men first arrived. Glancing at his watch, he says, Well, looks like we've sucked all the fun out of thi-
Holy shit! Charlie cries.
His voice nearly drowns out the echo of the second cracking sound. This time I hear the report clearly. It's a gunshot.
Gil and I turn just in time to see it. The man explodes backward through the glass, and for a matter of seconds he stays frozen in free fall. With a muted thud, his body hits the snow, and the impact sucks all the noise and commotion from the courtyard.
Then there is nothing.
The first thing I remember is the sound of Charlie's feet as he dashes toward the body in the snow. Then a large crowd follows, converging around the scene, blocking my view.
Oh, Jesus, Gil whispers.
Voices in the huddle shout, Is he okay? But there's no sign of movement.
Finally I hear Charlie's voice. I need someone to call an ambulance! Tell them we've got an unconscious man in the courtyard by the chapel!
Gil pulls his phone from his pocket, but before he can dial, two campus policemen arrive on the scene. One of them presses through the crowd. The other begins directing the spectators back. For a moment I see Charlie crouched over the man, delivering chest compressions-perfect motions, like pistons stroking. How strange it is, suddenly, to see the trade tie plies by night.
We've got an ambulance on the way!
Faintly, in the distance, I can hear sirens.
My legs begin to shake. I feel the crawling sensation that something dark is passing overhead.
The ambulance arrives. Its rear doors extend open, and two EMTs descend to strap the man into braces and a stretcher. Motion stutters, spectators flickering in and out of view. When the doors swung shut, I can make out the impression where the body landed. The patch of flagstone has an unseemly quality, like a scrape on the flesh of a storybook princess. What I took for mud in the spatter of impact, I begin to see more clearly. Blacks are reds; the dirt is blood. In the office above, there is only darkness.
The ambulance drives off, lights and sirens fading as it shuttles onto Nassau Street. I stare back at the impression. It is misshapen, like a broken snow angel. The wind hisses, and I wrap my arms around my sides. Only when the crowd in the courtyard begins to disperse do I realize that Charlie is gone. He left with the ambulance, and an unpleasant silence has gathered where I expect to hear his voice.
Students are slowly disappearing from the courtyard with hushed voices. I hope he's okay, Gil says, putting a hand on my shoulder.
For a second I think he means Charlie.
Let's go home, he says. I'll give you a ride.
I appreciate the warmth of his hand, but I stand by, just watching. In my mind's eye the man falls again, colliding with the earth. The sequence fragments, and I can hear the crack of glass breaking, then the gunshot.
My stomach begins to turn.
Come on, Gil says. Let's get out of here.
And as the wind picks up again, I agree. Katie disappeared somewhere in the shuffle of the ambulance, and a friend of hers standing nearby tells me that she went back to Holder with her roommates. I decide to call her from home.
Gil places a gentle hand between my shoulders, and guides me toward the Saab that sits in the snow near the auditorium entrance. With that unfailing instinct to know what's best, he turns up the heat to a comfortable level, adjusts the volume on an old Sinatra ballad until the wind is a memory, and with a little burst of speed that assures me of our impunity before the elements, heads down campus. Everything behind us fades gradually into the snow.
Did you see the person who fell? he asks quietly once we're on our way.
I couldn't see anything.
You don't think… Gil shifts forward in his seat.
Should we call Paul and make sure he's okay?
Gil hands me his cell phone, but there's no service.
I'm sure he's fine, I say, fidgeting with the phone.
We hang in the silence of the cabin for several minutes, trying to drive the possibility out of our minds. Finally Gil forces the conversation elsewhere.
Tell me about your trip, he says. I'd flown to Columbus earlier in the week to celebrate finishing my thesis. How was home?
We manage a patchy conversation, hopping from topic to topic, trying to stay above the current of our thoughts. I tell him the latest news about my older sisters, one a veterinarian, the other applying for a business degree, and Gil asks about my mother, whose birthday he's remembered. He tells me that, despite all the time he devoted to planning the ball, his thesis still managed to get written in those last days before the economics department deadline, when I was gone. Gradually we wonder aloud where Charlie has been accepted to medical school, guessing where he intends to go, since these are matters about which Charlie is modestly silent, even to us.
We bear south, and in the murky night the dormitories hunker on either side. News of what happened at the chapel must be spreading through campus, because no pedestrians are visible, and the only other cars sit silently in lots on the shoulder. The drive down to the parking lot, a half mile beyond Dod, feels almost as long as the slow walk back up. Paul is nowhere to be seen.