In 1991 I became a fulltime Language Specialist for the Firm, and by that time Dickie had run off to the cornfields of Illinois and Kristine had inherited the Director's suite.
Unfortunately my entrance on the scene coincided with a long series of disasters that unfolded over the twelve-odd years that I was gainfully employed at ELP. As the years went on I began to get the uneasy feeling that my presence there somehow was attracting, in some weird supernatural way, the calamities that seemed to unfold like clockwork, following me around the basement of Bennett Hall.
My first office was in the old Room 11. I shared the space with Joanne Mooney, who had a profound love of opera and a penchant for blasting Il Trovatore at full volume from her office stereo.
One day, seated at my computer (I believe we were using Macintosh Rocket 88s back in those days), I thought I detected a rumbling noise overhead, like the rushing of many waters. I jumped off my chair and rolled to the side just seconds before a thundering deluge came down through the ceiling and submerged the spot where I had been seated only moments before. Within minutes the whole office was knee deep in a mucky green fluorescent liquid. I was too stunned to move, but fortunately Joanne yanked me out to safety before I drowned. Presently Kristine strolled over from her office, calmly surveyed the carnage, and said, “Shit. I better call the Dean.”
New quarters were found for me and Joannne in an abandoned corner of the basement, down at the end of a long corridor, in Room 2B. After Joanne went off to join the Marines in Long Island, I had the place to myself for several months and was enjoying the solitude until her replacement, a fresh-faced guy named Andy, showed up. Andy had recently been stationed in Thailand , and he regaled me with stories of Thai transsexuals, whom, he claimed, served as receptionists in most of the import-export operations that the Firm used as cover in Bangkok.
He also fixed the office up very nicely with the help of his wife of the time, who was an interior decorator. He installed a putting green and a really elegant teakwood bar, and frequently after work Tom would come over to join us for a few martinis.
One day on my way back from class, strolling down the deserted corridor that led to my corner office, I heard a scampering noise overhead. I didn't think much of it at the time, since the Office of International Students was located directly above that segment of the basement, and I knew the staff up there sometimes got frisky. But when I got back to 2B, and mentioned it to Andy, he looked at me strangely and said he hadn't noticed anything. Coming in to work the next day, I noticed the strange scampering noises again, but this time, in addition, there was a whole lot of squealing and banging going on, with a lot of high-pitched chittering. Again I mentioned it to Andy. He gave me that look again, shrugged, and said, “Maybe the rats are copulating in the ceiling.” Didn't seem to bother him any.
All week the squeaking noises got louder and more insistent, and finally I went to Kristine to report the situation. She walked down the hall with me, listened carefully, said, “Yep. Sounds like rats fucking in the ceiling. I better call the Dean,” and strolled back to her office.
That afternoon a big black pickup truck pulled up to the back door and half a dozen dudes in space suits toting AK-47s piled out. They banged away at the ceiling for half an hour and when the smoke cleared there was a lot of fur and a few intact though deceased baby squirrels on the floor. The exterminator held up the pelts and said “There's your problem, mister. Warn't no rats – them's squirrels. Mind if I take these along? Fry em up in butter, make real good eatin.”
A couple of years passed in relative calm. Then one evening I had to pee real bad. It was a Tuesday about midnight and I was banging away at the computer, trying to finish the testing stats for the incoming students. I didn't feel like hiking all the way to the other end of the building, so I slipped into the deserted ladies bathroom at the end of the hall and relieved myself. I got back to the office and finished the class placements and printouts of test scores about 3 am and went home.
Next morning I dragged myself into the Main Office and was chatting up the cute Hawaiian chick on duty, when an awful screeching and ruckus came from the direction of the ladies room. I peeked out and there were half a dozen of the female LS2s running up the hall trying to pull up their pants and yelling like blazes. Behind them was a swarm of monstrous red neon crabs, waving their claws and singing the Penn fight song.
“Holy crap!” I stammered, and retreated into the relative safety of the Main Office. Next thing I knew Kristine stalked out into the hall, stretched out her arms toward the advancing crabs and chanted “Back to darkness, ye evil servants of Satan!” There was a sort of POOF, a bunch of choking black smoke, and then silence.
Kristine strolled into the Main Office like nothing had happened, helped herself to a jelly donut from the box on the counter, remarked, “Shit. I better call the Dean,” calmly checked her mail, and went back to her office.
I think it was about that time the cute receptionist decided that things were getting too weird on the mainland and that she'd better go back to Hawaii.
After that, I avoided the ladies room, and made the long trek to the mens room, even if it was late at night and I had to go really bad.
The final straw came in the summer of 02. We were having the usual torrential seasonal monsoons; the urinals were backing up and strange one-celled creatures were breeding in the foetid green pools in the mens room. One day I was standing in the Main Office and Dorito walked in in her wetsuit to report that there was half a foot of water in the Student Center. Suddenly, just inches from where I was standing, a solid column of purple liquid burst through the ceiling and wiped out the ancient fax machine. By this time the staff was pretty much inured to this sort of disaster. I remember Dorito remarking that it looked like grape Gatorade. But we all pulled on our rubber hip boots and evacuated to the hallway.
It rapidly became clear that this was no typical monsoon. From the direction of the ladies room an enormous tsunami, a sheer wall of water, was rushing towards us. I lost my footing and was bowled over, convinced that this time I had finally bought the farm. I came up choking and spluttering, gasping for air. Fortunately I had been working out at the Hutchinson Pool that summer and managed to stay afloat, clinging to some old wooden filing cabinets that were drifting down the hall.
Assistant directors and limited term language specialists and the occasional Korean student were bobbing in the water in the wake of the huge wave. Just as Tom was going down for the third time, Kristine floated out of her office, paddling away on her cello case, grabbed him, and hauled him up to safety. For the next few hours she sailed up and down the hall looking for survivors, until the waters subsided.
Afterwards we were all standing around in the Main Office smoking Marlboros, trying to get an accurate body count. “Shit,” remarked Kristine, “I'd better call the Dean.”
I managed to finish the session, but after the grades were in I dragged myself into the Director's office.
“Kristine,” I said. “I've been thinking. Maybe I better take a leave of absence. This stuff is starting to get to me.”
She listened sympathetically.
“You know, I'm not ordinarily superstitious or anything, but it just seems like everywhere I go in the Bennett Hall basement, calamity overtakes me.”
She nodded. “Whatever you think is best.”
“OK,” I said. “I'm gonna take a few months off, think about things, maybe see an exorcist. Anyhow, before I go, there's just one question I've been meaning to ask you. Ever since I came here you've been lugging around that cello case, and yet I don't think I've ever once heard you playing it. Even when I stood up against your office door with one ear pressed against it. You don't really have a cello in there, do you?”
“Well,” she replied, “since you're leaving, I guess I can let you have a look. You can keep a secret, can't you?”
“I'm the soul of discretion, “ I responded.
She got her cello case down from the shelf, laid it on the mahogany conference table, and opened it. Nestled inside on the velvet lining were two submachine guns.
I whistled. “Nice! Bulgarian Shipkas, aren't they?”
She looked up at me, surprised. “You know your guns, don't you? I got them when Hubby and I were staying at the Embassy once in Sofia. Just after the Wall came down. Never had to use them, but I like to keep them around for protection.”
Several months after I left the roof of one of the basement classrooms caved in, killing an LS2 and several Korean students. Soon after that the entire operation was moved to Market Street. I felt much better, knowing that it couldn't have been entirely my presence that was the curse of Bennett Hall.