A rumor is information that might be true, but you’re not supposed to know it. Gossip is information about something that is true, but you’re still not supposed to know it. A scandal is when someone fucks up and the whole neighborhood won’t shut up about it. The news that Tommy Amici was the anonymous purchaser of the Harper Observatory was undergoing a phase transition from gossip to scandal in record time; maybe too quickly, like superheating water: first disturbance will cause an explosion.
The news vectored out from the Morning Tavern all over Little Aleppo like cholera from a water pump; starting linearly and becoming exponential. Augusta O. Incandescente-Ponui, whom everyone called Gussy, shouted out the information around 8 in the morning. At 8:20, a woman named Mary Mallon left the bar and went to teach her 9:00 am class in Hermoeidetics at Harper College. Along the way, she stopped at the Broadside Newsstand to buy a copy of The Cenotaph, where she shared the news with Omar.
“So that’s why the motherfucker asked!” Omar shouted. (Omar was the Broadside’s owner.)
“Boof,” Argus added. (Argus was Omar’s seeing-eye dog.)
“What?” Mary asked.
“Don’t worry about it,” Omar said.
When Mary Mallon got to the campus of Harper College, she greeted several colleagues and told all of them that Tommy Amici was the anonymous buyer of the Observatory; then she told her students and if there’s anyone more gossipy than college professors, it’s college students. Class let out at 10:15, and by noon–right about when Gussy and Big-Dicked Sheila were leaving the bar–the entirety of the school knew. This roiled the small institution, but Harper College was a very easy place to roil.
By one, a committee called Students For Harper Observatory had been formed; by half past, it had splintered into three factions that had lost all sight of the original objective and were now concentrating on fighting with one another. Two o’clock saw a further splitting into nine or ten different teams, plus a burgeoning group of students annoyed with the whole situation who started their own committee called Students For Burning Down Harper Observatory Right The Fuck Now. This was not an unusual afternoon at the school.
Harper College was founded in 1924 by Harper T. Harper; the only reason it wasn’t called Harper T. Harper College is because the name wouldn’t fit on the sign. He had made his fortune in the Congo (rubber, hands) and when he returned home to Little Aleppo, he wanted to share his good fortune in a way that benefited his tax obligation, and also let everyone know how important he was. What makes a place great, he asked himself. What makes a place impressive? Harper T. Harper wanted to build something that would elevate, inspire; something that would be a cornerstone of a neighborhood for generations, inspiring children and employing adults. A legacy, he thought. Something to last.
So he built the zoo.
After that–on the land that was left over–he founded Harper College.
In his later years, Harper T. Harper would rail about the trouble that education brought, and how America’s children were being given too many books and not enough shovels. Thinking, he would often yell at whoever was closest, leads inexorably to Communism. A young man should be engaged in honest toil in the pursuit of profit for his betters, not pondering things. I have never seen, he would say, a single philosophy student that has not turned to the occult and begun worshiping the Foul One and lighting old women on fire. College leads to soft hands, flabby bellies, and a weak dollar.
Harper had grown into these beliefs. When he founded the school, he signed a charter that guaranteed the faculty and students complete academic freedom; furthermore, he had negotiated with the Town Fathers to make the campus a separate municipality from the neighborhood. Harper College would be its own city-state, self-governing and devoted to the pursuit of knowledge and the education of Little Aleppo’s young men.
He regretted his decision ten minutes into the first term when he noticed that young women were also being educated.
“What is going on? Explain this, Spants.”
“You’ll have to be more specific.”
Carter Spants was the first Dean of Harper College; Harper had hired him personally, mostly based on looks: he just looked like a college professor, tall and lean with an aquiline nose and big ears and tweed, and an unruly shock of graying hair. Round gold-rimmed glasses.
“You want me to explain girls, sir? This is a conversation your parents should have had with you.”
“Why are there girls on campus?”
“How else will they go to class?”
“Why are there girls going to class?”
“Why else would they be on campus?”
Carter Spants had gone to Yale–that was the most important thing about him besides his appearance, according to Harper–and also Princeton and Rutgers. Bachelor’s of Science in Linguistics, Bachelor’s of Arts in Stagecraft; two Master’s: Cryptodentistry and Salamander History; PhD thesis on the role of potatoes in the Gallic Wars. Carter Spants had been going to school since he was six and he didn’t intend to ever stop.
He loved the life of an academic: read a bunch of stuff, write something about the stuff, argue with colleagues, repeat ’til emeritus. What else is there to do: make money? He needed some, obviously, everyone needs some money, but he didn’t need so much as to make the chasing of it a priority. What did he need? Place to live, place to work, access to a library, and colleagues to argue with.
And a fascination. Carter Spants needed a fascination–that’s what he called it–to fill his mind. Judging from his resume, you might think him a dilettante; he was not: Carter was a serial obsessive. He didn’t flit about and bandy: when he studied a subject, he studied the ever-loving fuck out of it; there wasn’t a subject he couldn’t become one of the world’s experts on in a year. (Remember that this is the 1890’s and 1900’s; there was a lot less to know back then.) Carter Spants was perfectly content to spend the rest of his life going from library to library condensing many books into a single thought.
But when he heard through the Yale grapevine–which is a very fancy grapevine–that Harper T. Harper needed a Dean for his new school, Carter couldn’t resist. He wrote Harper a letter, effusive and subtle, and sent along his C.V. and copies of articles he had written and journals he had edited; letters of recommendation from some of the most respected minds in the nation; clippings from magazines and newspapers.
Harper was impressed in that way that only people who hated school are impressed by academic credentials: he had no idea what he was looking at, but there sure was a lot of it and half of it was in Latin, so: wow. (Though he had graduated from Yale, Harper had attended precisely three classes in his four years there: two by accident, and one to challenge the professor to a duel.) He sent Carter a train ticket.
When he got to Little Aleppo, Carter Spants poured it on. He stepped off the train wearing a mismatched vest and jacket and holding a book, open, in front of him.
“Mr Harper,” Carter cried out upon seeing him at the station. “Have you read any Rampoisie?”
“Oh, sure,” Harper T. Harper replied, and never quite recovered.
As they toured the campus, Carter lectured gloriously. Plato, Mr. Harper. Plato is what we will aspire to at Harper College. (Carter had figured out that Harper liked the sound of his own name.) The open symposia, sir! Radical freedom as to provide space for the throwing of some intellectual elbows, what do you say to that, Mr. Harper?
Harper T. Harper didn’t know what the fuck Carter Spants was talking about, but it certainly sounded lofty and respectable.
They walked around the grounds. The dormitories were being built. The library would be the third-biggest on the West Coast. A great gothic castle was almost finished; the classes would be held there. And off in the corner was a small Victorian house for the Dean. It was perfect, Carter thought.
He led Harper around campus–he was giving the tour now–and pontificated on pedagogy, and spoke in four languages at once, and quoted Anaxagoras for no reason. There was pipe-smoking involved. How can thought flower underfoot, Mr. Harper? Fear of betraying one’s masters leads to self-censorship, Mr. Harper. Who can tell where the truth may lead, where our inquiry might take us, how tomorrow’s work could turn out? A thought is an ant, Mr. Harper. If you could, would you avoid stepping on an ant?
And Harper T, Harper, who had made his fortune in rubber and hands, said that he would avoid stepping on an ant.
Of course you would, Carter puffed his pipe at him.
Just a few hours later, Harper signed the school’s charter. Besides the academic freedom thing, and the legal autonomy thing, it made Carter Spants the Dean for life and granted him full control of the school with neither checks nor balances. They drank to it in Harper’s office. Freedom of the mind!
“Stop this, Carter!”
“Both of you! Why are there girls going to class?”
“Because otherwise they’d be marked absent.”
Harper College is directly south of Rose Street and you can hear the church bells strike the hour. WHONG! WHONG! Scurrying and running, dorm to class, and back again, and flirting and kissing and yelling and Joey the Spaz has dropped all his books again and, off behind a bush, some very untrustworthy youths are sharing a cigarette of marihuana.
Harper T. Harper was not a tall man, but he was wide. He positioned his bulk towards Carter Spants and asked him,
“What is the meaning of this, sir?”
Carter Spants was not a wide man, but he was tall. He did not turn to face Harper.
“The meaning of this is that you signed the charter, and that you should read it closely. And once you read it closely–”
–and now he did to turn to face Harper T. Harper–
“–you’ll find that I do not answer to you.”
Carter Spants was right, and a dozen lawyers in a row told Harper the same thing: he had signed away his rights to complain, or take back his money. The land–and the initial endowment–belonged to the college, and the college was under the singular control of the Dean. Over the years, the school and its foolishness baked a rabid loathing into Harper T. Harper, quiet and simmering and right under the surface and waiting to strike anyone who reminded him of it.
Right now, though, Harper did not want to wait to strike anyone. He wanted to strike one particular person immediately.
“How dare you? I am insulted, and I demand that you duel.”
“It’s 1924, Mr. Harper. Dueling’s a bit out of style, don’t you think?”
“Do you refuse? Are you a coward?”
Carter pulled a small silver trowel from the pocket of his vest, turned his pipe upside down, scraped out the ash. Put the trowel back. Tobacco pouch from his jacket pocket. Tamp tamp tamp. Tobacco gets rolled up, put back. Carter felt around for his lighter. Across his chest? In his pants? Ah, in his shirt pocket under his vest. Thin Dunhill lighter, silver like the trowel, with the vertical spinner wheel to spark the flame. Pwoff pwoff pwoff.
“Which question should I answer first?”
“I’ve had enough of your attitude, sir. Will you duel or not?”
“Shall we follow the rules of the code duello?
“The challenged has the right to choose the scope of battle?”
“That is how it works.”
“No,” Harper shook his head.
“You refuse, sir? Are you a coward?”
“I am no coward! You can’t choose spelling bee. Pistols, swords, that sort of thing.”
“Oh, that sounds violent,” Carter said.
“Of course it sounds violent! It’s a duel! It involves weapons!”
“The mind is a powerful weapon, Mr. Harper.”
“Goddamn you, stop your buffoonery!”
“Sir, you try my patience!”
“And you try mine! Security!”
The two men–one wide but not tall, one tall but not wide–stood on the newly sodded quad of Harper College. It was getting on to four in the afternoon, and workmen were hammering in the distance. Joey the Spaz ran by, tripped, got up, ran some more.
“Oh, right. I haven’t hired any security yet.”
Harper T. Harper drew up on his toes and thumped his index finger into Carter Spants’ chest.
“Tomorrow. Dawn. I will bring the pistols.”
And he walked off.
Dean Spants waited until Harper had vanished from sight, then sprinted to the great gothic castle across the quad. Gardeners were busy installing the ivy, and a sign lay on its back waiting to he hung: HARPER HALL. His office was on the third floor, in the front with a view of the whole school; he had an anteroom and an inner study. There was no furniture or blinds on the windows, but all of Carter’s diplomas had been hung up.
There was a young woman in a grey skirt and clompy black shoes sitting on the floor; she had a book in her lap and a phone sitting next to her. It was a candlestick model with the earpiece on a wire: you held it up to your mouth to talk.
Her name was Molly McGlory, and she was a redhead.
“Oh, Dean. You have a lot of messages.”
“Later. Remember how I said that hiring security could wait?”
“Did I not say it?”
“I don’t think so,” she said.
“Well, I thought it.”
“Bad thought. Horrible thought. Security must be paramount. Vigilance, Miss McGlory: let it be our byword and prayer.”
Molly picked her writing tablet up and put it on top of her book–Hypersemantics And Its Disconnects by Wofford–and pulled a pencil out of her hair.
“Byword and prayer.”
“What are you doing?’
“Should I not be talking notes?”
“No,” Carter said.
“You said it in a very ‘write this down’ kind of way.”
“This isn’t a lecture. We need to hire security. The hand-chopping madman who paid for the school is going to show up tomorrow morning and shoot me.”
Molly McGlory pursed her lips, looked at Dean Spants, stuck the pencil back in her hair. She set her writing tablet and textbook carefully to her side, and then folded her hands in her lap.
“You called him a ‘hand-chopping madman.’ Right?’
“Yes,” he said.
“Okay. You called him a ‘hand-chopping madman,’ which means you knew exactly what kind of person he was, and you still chose to antagonize him?”
Carter Spants was arrogant, but he was also self-aware. At the moment, he wished he were only the former.
“Possibly,” he said.
“You know he’s gonna shoot ya, right?”
Molly had lived in Little Aleppo all her life.
Carter was new to the neighborhood.
“Yes. He’s done this before.”
“What did you mean ‘he’s done this before?'”
“Dueling. And shooting.”
If you can lie down on a floor elegantly, Carter Spants did.
“How many times?”
“Oh. Uh, three? Maybe four, but I can remember three off the top of my head. The reporter from The Cenotaph who called his zoo bourgeoisie. I don’t know the other two stories.”
“Miss McGlory, I may be more used to thunder than lightning. Cutting remarks and sarcastic reviews. Mean looks in the faculty dining room. I’m an academic.”
“He’s a Little Aleppian; he’s gonna shoot ya.”
Carter groaned and rolled over so that his forehead was on the crimson carpeting; his jacket had a single vent in the back, so the flaps flipped open and revealed his ass. Molly looked at it, but only for a second.
“I’ve never been shot before.”
“I wouldn’t recommend it,” Molly said.
He lifted his head off the carpet and turned it towards her.
“You’ve been shot?”
“Of course not. You shouldn’t have to take a bullet to know you don’t want to.”
He put his head back down, gently.
“Give me the pencil, Molly. I’m going to take notes on what you say.”
Molly lowered her eyes, and when she brought them back up to his they were not smiling, green and stormy.
“Do you want to get shot or not?”
She picked the earpiece up off the phone, jiggled the switch hook-chucka chucka chucka–and the switchboard operator came on the line. (Little Aleppo still had a central exchange in 1924: you connected to the operator, and she connected you to your party.)
The operator’s name was Babs.
“Lemme talk to Billy.”
“He’s such a prick. Ma is pissed.”
The operator’s full name was Babs McGlory.
“Ma’s always pissed. How’re you?”
“Foot’s acting up.”
“Shame. C’mon now, I gotta talk to Billy.”
“Hold your horses.”
Whirring and whizzing, clicks and hisses, and then BRRrrrrr. BRRRRRrrrrr.
At a speakeasy called the Irving halfway across the neighborhood, a short man with thick forearms and a cauliflower ear answered.
“College girl! Didn’t think we’d ever hear from ya again.”
“Coulda seen me Sunday if you showed up for supper, Billy. Ma’s pissed.”
“Ma’s always pissed.”
Billy McGlory owned the Irving, and he was one of the two biggest crime bosses in the neighborhood. His brother Sean was the police chief, and he was the other one. There were also twelve other McGlory brothers, and two sisters: Babs, who ran the switchboard, and Molly.
Molly was the first McGlory to go to college, and the family was proud of her.
“I need something, Billy.”
“Who’s bothering you?”
Molly could hear her brother’s nostrils flare over the phone, and then she looked at Dean Spants, who had rolled onto his side. He looked like a man who had not only been thrown out of a plane without a parachute, but who had not been aware he was on a plane until he was thrown from it without a parachute.
“Hold on a sec.”
She said to Carter,
“Dean, we don’t have any women professors.”
“The school is co-educational! We admit female students,” he said.
“I know! I’m one of them. But we don’t have any women professors.”
Molly McGlory had red hair and green eyes, and when she squinted them she looked like a slightly-drunk demon. Her brothers always laughed when she made that face. Carter Spants was not laughing.
“As is Mr. Harper, Dean Spants.”
Molly held the earpiece of the phone out towards him and asked into the horn,
“How many people has that Harper creep shot?”
“Three? Four?” Billy’s voice crackled out. “Molly, what the hell’s going on? Do I need to come over there?”
“No!” Carter yelped. He was sitting up now. “No one needs to come over!”
“Gimme one second, Billy,” she said into the phone.
“One. One woman. Adjunct.”
“Three. Full tenure.”
Molly held the earpiece in one hand, and with the other made a pistol with her thumb and index finger.
Carter Spants’ success was based on right answers. To tests, to homework, to challenges, to students: he was an academic, and academics had the right answers, even when they were asking the wrong questions. Again, he gave the right answer.
Molly put the earpiece to her head and pulled the phone close to her mouth.
“Billy, the Dean and Harper T. Harper had a little misunderstanding.”
“What’s a dean?”
“Like a principal.”
“Gotcha. That fat bastard pulling that duel shit again?’
“Pistols at dawn.”
Billy McGlory slumped down onto the bar of the Irving. Life did not need to be this complicated, he thought. Egotistical bastards, that’s who muck things up. Man who goes putting his name on everything he touches can’t be anything but a pain-in-the-ass. Pistols at dawn my sainted cock, Billy thought.
“You get back to your books.”
“Thank you, Bubber.”
“Ah, don’t call me that.”
When Billy got off the phone, he put his cap on and told his brother Liam he was running an errand and walked down the Main Drag to the Harper Building. He didn’t have an appointment, but the secretary knew who he was. Billy closed the door behind him, so there’s no telling what the two of them talked about. Maybe the weather, maybe the future. Maybe business.
When Molly got off the phone, she said to the Dean,
“Okay? That’s it?”
“Would you like to know all the details?”
Carter Spants was not a tough man, and he was not street-smart, but he was remarkably good at distilling events down into lessons; he did so with the previous half-hour of his life.
“No, I do not.”
Molly smiled at him, and then picked up her writing tablet and placed it on her lap. She picked up her pencil, licked the end–she generaly didn’t do that, but she was enjoying messing with the Dean–and opened the tablet to a fresh page.
“Is it always like this?”
“I don’t know, Dean. The college just opened.”
They sat there quietly on the floor of his unfurnished office.
“Now,” Molly said. “About those three professors.”
And then it wasn’t quiet any more for a long time. Carter Spants stayed in the office all night peering out the window overlooking the quad. Dawn came, dawn went. Breakfast-time, mid-morning, noon. At 2:37 pm, Carter decided that dawn was over and left his office, went down the stairs two floors, and walked out onto the campus of Harper College where Joey the Spaz crashed into him. He would be the Dean for many years after that, and fight with Harper T. Harper the entire time, but there were never again any death threats.
He was Dean during the Depression. when the school flirted with Communism, and then seduced Communism and humped it; were it not for his calming hand, there would have been purges within both the faculty and the freshman dorm. The students accused him of being a counter-revolutionary, and he smoked his pipe at them and quoted Pope. He was Dean when the students demanded all the professors be fired so that they might teach themselves; he was Dean a week later when the students realized what a pain-in-the-ass teaching was, and demanded that the professors be immediately rehired. He was Dean for three turtlemonster attacks.
Carter Spants was not the Dean when Mary Mallon told the campus about Tommy Amici buying the Observatory, but only because he was dead. He loved Harper College, and never wanted to leave, and so he didn’t. Because the grounds are self-governing, the laws about proper burial don’t apply; the students buried him out back of the small Victorian house he had lived in for 53 years. However, the laws regarding proper burial are generally good ones designed for safety, and not following them is a terrible idea: the students didn’t bury Carter deep enough, and so the first rain POPPED his half-decayed corpse out of the ground like a jump scare. Professionals were hired for a re-internment.
Rumors are whispered, gossip is murmured, but scandal shouts: the news did not sit peacefully in the quad strumming a guitar; the information neither hacked, nor sacked. Word got out, replicating itself, growing and oozing through conversations and arguments. All the way on the Upside, the women of society drank wine at L’Escalier and wondered what could be done; on the Downside, some ladies in a laundromat/bar called the Wash & Slosh made their way through a case of Arrow tallboys and agreed that somebody should fuckin’ do something.
Night falls electric on the Main Drag, gathering speed and weight until there is darkness and different things are possible. Different things are possible at night. High atop Pulaski Peak, the 100-inch telescope housed in Harper Observatory was pointed at Cantius JN41, which was a red giant star that had been struck from its intended trajectory–gone rogue–and was now on a suicide run towards the galactic center, knocking smaller stars and systems out of its way or just eating them up.
Trillion stars in a galaxy, Penny Arrabbiata thought as she looked through the telescope’s eyepiece. Each one’s got a planet in the pipe. Not too cold, not too hot. Trillion planets capable of life, she thought. Single-celled organisms at first. Later, elephants and ducks. And then one day you look up and someone else’s sun is bearing down on you and your world burns in an instant. A trillion other systems you could have eaten and you had to eat mine?
No matter how good the odds are, someone’s getting fucked, Penny thought.
She sipped her coffee and looked at the universe some more. Outside, a ghost cop slept in a bulldozer. Down in the valley, two women in an apartment above a hair salon were fucking. In a bookstore down the street, a man had his head down on a table and snored. On Rose Street, the church bells rang: first the Calling Judge in the belfry of the First Church of the Infinite Christ, and then the bells of St. Clements, and St. Martin’s, and St. Mary’s. Everything was growing in the Verdance. If you didn’t know any better, it would seem like any other night in Little Aleppo, which is a neighborhood in America.