The Columbia Bookstore keyring jangles in my pocket as I arrive at my new place of employment. I’ve been bouncing around for awhile—I never hold a job for too long, I always find my way to a new place before long. This job seems promising. A security guard—a night watchman. 7 pm to 9 am. Easy enough. Just need to wait for the bookstore to close and then I can start my shift.
7 pm: Closing
The last customer staggers out. Young. Fresh. Hope still in their eyes. As I watch the lights go dim, I take my post behind the security desk. I flip between the cameras. In the corner of one, I see faint movement. A hoodie twitches. A pair of socks inch along like a cerulean inchworm. What haunts this subterranean space?
Through the glass doors of the bookstore entrance at the top of the staircase, I can see the last vestiges of daylight flickering over the horizon. Twilight has settled over Columbia, and my shift is just underway. I recline backwards in my chair. I’ve switched my feed from the security cameras to season five, episode seven of Gilmore Girls, with Subway Surfers videos playing on my phone, which is propped up next to the monitor. I briefly click back to the computer monitors. I peer out at the pastel-white mannequins, proudly displaying Columbia hoodies, sweatpants, and beanies. They looked so docile and lifeless before, but now, in this angle, in this lighting, they look more rigid, more attentive, as if something deep inside them had been awakened, and driven them to vigilance, or perhaps something more sinister. I frown and return to Gilmore Girls.
The ambient sounds of the streets of Morningside Heights seem to have faded away. It’s quiet now. It feels as though even the air conditioning vents have gone quiet, leaving behind a faint droning—like the absence of sound, the sound of silence, perhaps.
I rise from my desk and take a brief walk around the bookstore. I brought my flashlight to work—Night at the Museum taught me that you always need a flashlight as a night watchman. I shine it around the corners of the bookstore, partly to make myself feel cool and professional, but partly because I have a sneaking, sinking suspicion that I might actually illuminate something that I hadn’t previously seen. The shadows dance around the beam of my flashlight, seemingly converging around the glow of the light. As I walk through the clothing section, I notice that the mannequins all seem to have their heads turned towards me.
I am all alone in this dark, empty bookstore, but yet it feels as though I’m surrounded by faces. All throughout the bookstore, banners of famous Columbia alumni hang from the ceiling. Zora Neale Hurston, Barack Obama, Franklin Big D. Roosevelt, all of them staring blankly out into the bookstore—but yet there is mysterious depth to their faces. Their black-and-white visages are two-dimensional, but it’s almost as if there’s something lurking behind them.
The longer I sit here, the more I think that the banners of alumni have grown bigger and bigger throughout the night. The differences are almost imperceptible, but it seems as though they are reaching down closer and closer to the ground. They remain rigid like silent sentinels watching over the bookstore—watching over me? It almost seems as though they’re multiplying. I can’t tell if I just didn’t notice Benjamin Cardozo before, but I could’ve sworn Warren Buffett wasn’t there when I started my shift. Maybe I’m just going crazy. But I could have sworn I just saw Jack Kerouac wink. A mystical quality to his grin permeates the sheen of the banner. I’ve stared at him too long—so long that I fail to notice the banner belonging to Margaret Mead, who is currently transcending the boundaries of ink and becoming flesh. Lou Gehrig has already emerged.
Midnight. My eyes are becoming bleary, as the darkness has seemingly thickened into a haze hanging over the bookstore. I’ve somehow made it through the entire fifth season of Gilmore Girls, and yet only a few hours have passed according to the digital clock on the wall. I glance at the clock, instinctively; I blink, and for a moment it becomes a grandfather clock, its hands stalled at the 12 position. The hairs on the back of my neck bristle, and I snap out of it, jolting backwards in my chair; the clock is normal again, displaying 12:07 AM in glaring red typeface. I return my attention to the security feed. I know it seems crazy, but I’m almost positive that the banners have moved closer to the cameras, crowding the view. Faces that previously had been facing in random directions have now turned to look directly into the lens. Through the scratchy static of the camera feeds, I can make out what appear to be several blank banners in the back of the bookstore.
For some reason, I am unable to rise out of my chair. I think about getting up, about taking another quick walk around the bookstore, just to shake off the haze—maybe if I do that, I’ll notice that everything is normal after all. But something compels me to stay in my chair. A feeling tugs at my stomach, telling me not to move. Not fear, but something else—something softer, yet more sinister.
The figures are approaching. Closer, closer, closer they progress. Stirring in the darkness. Asking, Why don’t you join me? Why don’t you crawl into my body of flesh? We can become one, we can join hands and fade together behind the blue. Dearest one, do not fool yourself. Who do you think really pulls the strings here?
A slight tear fell from my eye. Why was this happening to me? Dwight D. Eisenhower let out a warm, odorous breath. Hey, kid, he said. Why don’t I teach you a bit about Columbia?
I begged him. Please, Mr. President, please don’t do this to me.
That’s Ike, to you, he chuckled.
I don’t wanna talk about it. What happened with Ike. What I learned about this university. There’s certain things you need to know if you’re going to work at the Columbia Bookstore, he told me. These things are unspeakable. I bemoan them, the Columbia alumni. Why must they be the bearers of this knowledge? Why must they impart their ruinous wisdom upon me? Me. Why me?
The clock strikes 3. Another one—Art Garfunkel. The strands of his hair extend like tendrils, wrapping around my waist. Art pulls me closer and closer, crushing my lungs into a fine pulp. The act of breathing doesn’t exist here. The temporal laws don’t apply.
A guitar chord is struck. Hello darkness, my old friend. I’ve come to talk with you again. Art lets out a ravenous scream. Simon’s not here to help you, kiddie. He didn’t go to Columbia. It’s just good ol’ Uncle Artie over here! Hee hee hee…
The sound of silence engulfs me. Garfunkel has left, taking the funk with him. The air feels so still and empty without his touch.
All of a sudden, I hear a dull bass emerging from beneath the floor tiles. How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a forgotten spot in the Caribbean by providence impoverished in squalor, grow up to be a hero and a scholar? I’ll show you how. Ever heard of King’s College, my boy?
Alexander Hamilton himself sprung from beneath the floor, scratching the tile with his long, sharp claws. He was a solid four feet tall, as was the average height for men in the olden days. Suddenly, Hamilton pulled out the authentic U.S. Constitution, ripping it into shreds and producing spitballs. He began flinging wiry threads of salivary Constitution at me, pinning me to the wall. Please, don’t do this to me, I begged. But it was no use—he was not throwing away his shot.
I don’t know how much longer I can withstand this brutal torture. How ca—
Torture? Did you say torture???? Let me tell you a little bit about torture.
Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright materialized out of a pile of nondescript goo in the corner. You see, all my life I’ve just wanted to commit war crimes. So I did. That’s why I became Secretary of State, of course. Duhhhh. But now that my tenure’s over, I’ve had a bit of difficulty adjusting to normal civilized life. Where’s the violence? The fun? I thought I’d come back to my Alma Mater and unleash it here. So, sweetheart. What were you saying about…torture?
Madeleine Albright removed her signature pin from her blouse and flung it into my left eyeball, gouging it out instantly. Call me Oedipus, cause you’ve just been Rexed! she exclaimed. You did pay attention in LitHum, didn’t you? I screamed (literally) bloody murder, because my left eyeball was fucking gone. But Madeleine didn’t care. She laughed and laughed, and laughed some more. That felt good! she sang. Didn’t you enjoy that?
A crisp cold settles over the bookstore, but it’s almost refreshing. I perk up as the chill percolates over me, and my eyesight is restored, as if the safety pin was never real at all. And yet I’m not even seeing with my eyes anymore, but I can perceive another force entering the room. Don’t worry, Ruth Bader Ginsburg says. I will protect you.
I blink, and all of a sudden I’m back at my desk. The haze has disappeared, and the ominous atmosphere in the bookstore has subsided. Some of the mannequins still feel out of place, and some of the banners remain askew or blank entirely, but I feel more comfortable than I’ve felt all night.
Be careful, RBG whispers tenderly. I can only exert my power here for so long. There are a lot of primordial forces in this Barnes and Noble-licensed commercial establishment. I am but a single party to this convergence.
I settle back into my chair, surveying the bookstore. I hear Ruth’s voice one more time: Much like my tenure on the United States Supreme Court, during which I was known as a consensus-builder who favored rationalizing specific expansions on existing precedent, I can only do so much to intervene here. This place is ruled by no single historical figure, and no one’s power is infinite here. Now go back to your Gilmore Girls. I particularly like the one where Kirk portrays Jesus in the Last Supper.
The haze has returned. I can’t tell what’s real and what’s not anymore. At some moments, I can still feel the comforting embrace of Justice Ginsburg, but at other times I feel alone, cold and alone. I am now visited by Seth Low, former New York City mayor, Progressive Party reformer, and president of Columbia University. This is the way it’s always been, kid, Seth says menacingly, his eyes flashing with sick, twisted glee. You can’t contain us. You just have to let us out to play. Do you want to play a game with me?
I tear my eyes away from the spectral apparition that has invaded my consciousness, and I stare directly at the mannequins,
I can see the cold light of morning beginning to filter through the glass of the revolving door. But this still feels like the furthest place on planet Earth from the light of day. The jurisdiction of the sun stops at the top of the staircase. Everything below that is a frontier of celestial wilderness, a pocket dimension, a domain of chaos ruled by the whims of the souls contained within. This bookstore is a cosmic crossroads, a nexus of visceral energies disguised as a Barnes and Noble subsidiary.
I am longer at my desk. Where am I? I can feel a sea of mannequin limbs cascading around me. I am pelted in the face by a small brass lion. I try to dodge a flying coat rack displaying a Columbia-branded winter jacket, but my mobility is restricted amidst the tangled jungle of limbs, and all I can do is turn away and absorb the blow of the projectile. I am propelled further into the crowd, where something decidedly un-mannequin-like drags me in further.
I emerge from the furious mob, and I find myself deposited at the bottom of the escalator. I reach out towards the exit, but all of a sudden the escalator whirrs into motion, moving at a break-neck pace in the opposite direction, rejecting me before I can even try.
Shouldn’t stray too far from your safe place, says a voice drifting through the air. Dewitt Clinton? I’d recognize that voice anywhere!
Time’s ticking, says Alexander Hamilton, accompanied by the screeching of claws along the walls. Will you be throwing away your shot?
The haze overtakes me.
9 am: Opening
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