Call it a hunch half-fulfilled:
In some ways college is a lot better than what I’m used to.
The Music Therapy Department at Hun State University is all right. For one thing, the professors aren’t active anti-Semites with crippling dementia. There are theory classes and music psychology integration classes and low-brass techniques classes and all day every day I get to listen to music and learn about music from people who actually care that Schubert is different than Schumann.
Hun State is pretty decent. There are a contingent of hold-over zombies from the high schools, girls and boys who got so bored with their insufferable biology notebooks that their souls skipped town, but they mostly just have keggers and take marketing classes and check their stock portfolios on their Blackberries, and they’re easy enough to avoid.
My mom actually teared up when I got accepted.
“Way to go, Champ,” she sniffed, “You’ll show them. You won’t let the terrorists win.”
She sent me off with a paper bag full of foil tuna packets, but I ditched them in the trash can of the dorm lobby.
I’m just glad that Winston Bongo decided to go too. He spends most of his days locked in the basement of the digital media building, editing his end of year project which combines professional wrestling with the religious iconography in Fellini films. It’s high concept, he says, a think piece that is going to revolutionize the industry. I think it is a mope piece about how Rat is in Egypt learning the secrets of both the universe and Bullfrog Industries from the Middle-eastern branch manager.
“There are a million pretty curly-haired film editor girls all around you, Bongo,” says Ellie Nesterman, my kind-of girlfriend I guess, “Bentley is my best friend, but she is Questionable. Besides, even if she summons James Dean’s spirit with some Book of the Dead juju, he’s not going to want any of what she’s got.”
She looks around furtively, as if any one would care, and then stage whispers, “Homosexual.”
Ellie Nesterman went to high school with Rat, and knows these things, and refuses to call Rat anything but Bentley. She is also the protégée and granddaughter of the honorable Captain Shep Nesterman, and has on many occasions accompanied him with her violin. She is the concertmistress of the Hun State orchestra, and always comes Snarking when there’s a samurai film showing.
Winston was unsure what Ellie would do to the delicate balance of the team Snark, but when she showed up for her first venture with two-foot fur trapper hats for each of us the better to blend in and sneak around, he was sold. I didn’t even have to start in with my pitch about her attributes, which was good, because the summer my father’s friend hired me to sell Zambonis door to door I made exactly zero dollars.
Snarking in college is a delicate process. Since the university is thoroughly modern, it has no student curfew, and one could make the argument that it is impossible to sneak anywhere under such circumstances. However, Winston Bongo and I have created a few special dispensations for the at-school Snark.
First, at least one roommate must be asleep at the time of the Snark. If either his or my roommate is passed out, we must leave the room without waking said roommate, collect the other Snarkers and make it out of the building without any RA or receptionist noticing. This is still depressingly easy, and we try not to talk about it. We are doing the best with the circumstances we have been given, Winston says glumly. Like our ancestors in the cold wilds of Eastern Europe, we will endure.
So it is normal to wake up and go to class, and normal to sit on the artistically placed concrete blocks between the music and the film buildings and wait for Winston Bongo to emerge from the bowels of the editing rooms and join us for lunch, and it is normal to ride the bus the half hour to downtown Baconburg and go to the theater, and maybe stop for a hotdog or look in on Blueberry park, and all of this normal is giving me an ulcer.
Then one day we are sitting in the April sun as the MBAs who inexplicably congregate around the arts buildings compare smartphones, and the universe reveals to us one Leonard Neeble.
He’s leaning against a tree, smoking a cigar and smiling to himself. He has a lean and freakishly tall look of a guy who has recently sprouted five inches and lost a lot of weight extremely quickly, abandoning the rest of us, his short and portly brethren. He’s watching a particularly besuited MBA shout about the Invisible Hand, and we are watching him, until the suit suddenly picks at his head, rubs his stomach and starts to do a small and courtly jig.
Winston looks at me, and I look at him, and we have to know, so we invite this Leonard Neeble to the nearby diner called Gary’s, which is run by conjoined twins named Gilda and Simone and their pet messenger rottweiler Cha-Cha. They sell this layered poutine that has cheese curds that make incredibly satisfying squeaks when you chew them, and is perfect for interrogations and general civilized conversation.
“I haven’t done that in years,” Leonard Neeble laughs around a mouthful of gravy and fries, “I mean, I of course blame Alan Mendelsohn for all this.”
“Felix Mendelssohn,” Ellie corrects, “and what does this have to do with Early Romanticism?”
“What do you mean that?” says Winston Bongo, getting a little hysterical, “Do what? You didn’t do that!”
“Who’s Alan Mendelsohn?” I say.
Leonard Neeble tells us the entire saga of the Omega waves and the Waka-Waka Nafsulian conspiracy and the boy from Mars, and by the end we have decided that Leonard Neeble is our kind of crazy and we would perhaps like to keep him around.
“You haven’t seen him in three years?” Ellie says.
“Exactly!” Leonard says, “How am I supposed to resist the siren call of State Twenty Six alone for that long?”
I have no idea what he is talking about, but I like it.
There is no time, of course, for explanations, because suddenly Cha-Cha the rottweiler trots up with a message for Winston from his uncle, the Mighty Gorilla. Winston goes very pale as he reads, and then hands Ellie the paper.
That’s how we spend our spring break investigating the untimely death of the great Captain Shep Nesterman, but uncovering something quite different.
I ask Leonard, near the end, as we are tied up in the Flying Petersen Brothers’ opium den and the flames lick around our ears, whether he would have not come to Gary’s with us that day if he had to do it over again, but there’s no answer. Leonard has slipped his ropes with a series of intricate and flexible yoga moves and is back through the door in seconds with an extinguisher and Osgood Sigerson himself.
“Sweet relief,” says Ellie, picking ash out of her eyebrows.
“And the capture of one of the most insidious minds in file-sharing,” says Winston Bongo.
“All through the power of yoga,” I whisper reverently, and vow to make Leonard teach me some of the stuff.
By then, of course, he is a fixture, and nothing could keep Winston, Ellie, and I from forcing him to attend Captain Nesterman’s musical wake in Old Town during the first week of summer. A week of celebration of his life by the weirdos, artists, musicians and freaks that knew him.
Captain Nesterman had bequeathed Ellie his tiny place on the corner in the old part of town, as she is his “sanest living relative”, and we set up shop in the purple and orange rooms with sacks of groceries, humidifiers for Ellie’s violin, and sleeping bags.
Leonard makes a rather rousing speech about the proper preparation of truly good chili at Blueberry Park; though I have to admit, my first effort at decrying the public education system all those years ago did receive a warmer welcome and at least twice the applause. As he steps down off the stage, a large orange shape looms in my periphery and I lunge for it, keeping my feet well out of reach.
I wake up on the ground next to Winston Bongo, who must have had the same idea, to see Leonard Neeble standing and staring at a big guy in a fuzzy orange sweater.
“Chili is no laughing matter,” Orange Sweater is saying with a grin, but Leonard just continues to stare, silent.
“Okay…” says Sweater, changing tactics, “What do you think of Grant Morrison’s new Batman and Robin?”
Leonard ignores this and hugs him tight, picking him straight up off the ground.
Ellie Nesterman’s eyes widen and she nudges me in the ribs with her boot so hard that I grunt loudly.
“How’s the Bronx?” Leonard says into one fuzzy orange shoulder, and the guy laughs.
“Good! Good. Been a while.”
Leonard finally lets go and turns to us, gazing down over our prostrate forms.
“Guys, this is Alan. He’s a Martian.”
Winston gives a weak cough. I know what he means. We’re just glad he’s not an orangutan.
Turns out that Alan, for a Martian, is a lot like Leonard except for louder, taller, and somehow scarier. He has a goat-roper hat and a box that he said was nearly unopenable but contained a life-saving and extreme measure. He has an Israeli air force bag with a tiny red parachute and wings emblazoned on the front.
Leonard keeps opening his mouth, almost saying something and then shutting it again, and Alan offers to, if we have the time before the real party starts at Beanbender’s at midnight, help Leonard make us the finest chili the world has ever seen. We pass the street artists in preparation and the homeless people and the doorman in his green balaclava and stand around as Leonard and Alan move about the kitchen, preternaturally aware of what the other is doing, handing over bowls and ingredients unasked for but needed. Winston and I die and go to heaven at the first bite, and even Ellie, whose mother can make cereal without burning it, pronounces the finished product “pretty good”.
We lapse into a food coma on the floor, and Winston is snoring and Ellie is out in seconds, but the other two lie perpendicular, heads making a corner.
“Remember when you believed me?” Alan says to the ceiling
“Yeah,” Leonard says softly, “I remember.”
It is none of my business, but I can’t help it.
“Remember that summer, after?” Alan presses.
“I remember,” Leonard says.
“I didn’t mean for it to be three years,” Alan says.
Leonard doesn’t say anything for a very long time, and I realize I haven’t breathed for as long
“I have the sneaking suspicion,” Leonard says, “That there is a Nafsulian business conglomerate trying to zombify Baconburg, starting with the Fine Arts department of Hun State.”
Alan freezes, then sighs at the low purple ceiling.
“You didn’t come here to see me,” Leonard says.
“Not only. No.”
“I’ve been doing fine, you know,” Leonard says, “Just fine.”
Alan moves a fraction; I can hear the polyester of the sleeping bag rustle, but I can’t see what is happening.
“I know,” he says, “I know you have.”
I refuse to listen anymore, and instead transpose Bartok’s The Miraculous Mandarin down two keys in my head, but of course the entire time I am thinking that it’s really the Miraculous Mendelsohn.
At Beanbender’s, Ellie takes the table in the center and pulls her violin out and plays the saddest and most wonderful music I have ever heard. It’s a Sufi ecstasy song that she arranged for violin. One of Shep Nesterman’s favorites. Everyone is mourning. You can tell.
Alan Mendelsohn is thrilled with Beanbender’s and with the caftan’d medium who brandishes a teacup at him and offers to read his fortune, and with the small half-dressed children running around our feet and with the baked potato and beer upon which he is chowing down. Leonard is watching him and I am watching Ellie play and Winston and a very tiny pale woman in a leotard are having an in-depth discussion about Werner Herzog and Klaus Kinski’s tempestuous and psychotic relationship.
My father likes to say that you are the only person who decides whether or not you will be a hero. You can’t wait around for your environment or your circumstances to make you one by accident, Walter, he says. And being a hero is different for everyone. It could be something small, like telling the truth or trying something new and exotic once in a while and are you sure you don’t want any of this avocado?
Anyway, Leonard’s arm is around Alan’s shoulders and I kiss Ellie in front of everyone as soon as she finishes her piece and I wipe the tears from her face with the cuff of my sweatshirt.
The scream of the horn of Rat’s Trans-Am breaks up all the heroics and she flies in the door, all elbows, dragging Uncle Flipping behind her.
Winston Bongo drops his potato, and a small curly-haired child scoops it up and runs.
“Captain Shep Nesterman is NOT DEAD,” Rat pronounces, “He is merely zombified.”
“The MBAs,” Leonard says, hushed.
“Exactly,” Rat says, repositioning her turban.
“Might we be of assistance?” Alan says.
“We can’t let them take the Music building,” I say.
“My grandfather is alive?” Ellie says.
Winston Bongo puts a stop to all conversation by heading straight out the door and climbing into the Trans-Am through the window.
“Good man,” says Uncle Flipping.
Ellie slings her violin case across her back and leads the rest of us out.