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1979 Crown Publishers Alongside Night Cover


Alongside Night
A Novel by J. Neil Schulman
Chapter 7


Elliot was back in the classroom. Mrs. Tobias stood at the front of the room wearing a police uniform. Marilyn Danforth walked up to Elliot and said, “Pardon me, but do you mind awfully if I defecate here? I have to go so badly.” This embarrassed him greatly because his parents and Denise were at the back of the room watching him. Mrs. Tobias started talking: “And now I’d like to introduce the boys in the band. First, we have Mason Langley on chains.” Langley stood up, rattled his chains a bit while bowing, then sat down again. “Next is Bernard Rothman. What are you playing, Mr. Rothman?” “I have no idea, Mrs. Tobias.” “Well it doesn’t really matter,” she said. “And last, but not least, we have Cal Ackerman on the tire wrench. For our first selection …” At this cue, Mason Langley started rattling his chains again while Cal Ackerman walked calmly over to Elliot and rammed the tire wrench into his left shoulder.

As the blow hit, Elliot awoke. The rattling of the chains transmuted into the ringing of a Picturephone. The pain from Ackerman’s blow to his shoulder was intensely real, though, which he realized reaching over to answer the phone. Elliot punched the switch allowing him to see without being seen, then answered. It was his 8 a.m. wake-up call. Elliot thanked the operator and switched off.

As his mind cleared, Elliot quickly realized that the pain was not from Ackerman’s phantasmal blow, but from the real one in his encounter with the gang. Tenderly, he tried moving his shoulder. He found he had full mobility — nothing seemed to be broken or sprained — but it did hurt like the devil. He resolved to ignore it as best he could.

Elliot decided to breakfast in his room rather than risk half an hour in a public restaurant again; he had no wish to be a sitting duck. Calling room service, he ordered papaya-mango juice, oatmeal, a cheese omelet, hash browns, muffins with jam, and a pot of coffee. Elliot had heard often — and believed — that breakfast was the most important meal of the day. Oh, yes. Could they provide a toothbrush with paste?

They could.

While awaiting delivery, Elliot used the toilet, washed, dressed — again donning his belt and shoulder holster — and had just reloaded his revolver with two bullets from a cigarette-case-sized holder when there was a knock at his door. Elliot looked up. “Yes?”

“Room service,” said a male voice behind the door. “Your breakfast, sir.”

Elliot swung his revolver’s cylinder shut, holstered the pistol, then started to the door; halfway there, he stopped short, realizing his holster was in the open. He swore under his breath, told the door he would be right there, and headed back to the bed where he picked up his jacket and put it on. As an afterthought, Elliot picked up the ammunition case, hiding it in his jacket pocket.

A moment later, he opened the door; it was indeed room service. The waiter — a Slavic-looking man in hotel uniform — rolled in a wheeled breakfast cart. “G’morning, sir.”

“Morning,” Elliot replied. “Over by the screen will be fine.”

The waiter set up the breakfast cart in front of the room’s television wall screen, then handed Elliot the chit to sign. He signed it — the waiter looking on closely — and when Elliot began writing his tip onto the bill, the waiter interrupted immediately: “That won’t be necessary, sir.”

Elliot stopped writing. “Eh?” Then he understood. “Oh, of course.” He reached into his pocket, removed his wallet, and counted out blue cash — almost endlessly. “Don’t spend them all in one place.”

The waiter smiled, taking the cash. “I don’t spend them at all. My wife meets me at my lunch break, takes all my tips, and goes shopping while the blues are still worth something.” He pocketed the money. “Thank you very much, sir. Enjoy your breakfast.”

A few minutes later Elliot ate breakfast while watching a television newscast. On the wall screen was a news announcer sitting in a studio: blown up behind him was a handsome, military-looking man in his fifties, wearing a stylish business suit. Titles under the blowup identified the man as Lawrence Powers, director of the FBI.

The news announcer was saying, “. . . the FBI director’s address to the National Association of Law Enforcement Officers at their convention last night.”

Film of Lawrence Powers addressing a police banquet was inserted onscreen. “These firebombings of our FBI offices,” Powers said in his distinctive, deep-Southern voice, “are only the latest example. The Revolutionary Agorist Cadre can be viewed as no less a threat than as an unholy alliance between the Mafia and anarchist-terrorists.”

The news announcer returned to the screen, continuing: “The FBI chief’s appearance at the convention last night was a surprise to many. It was not expected that Mr. Powers would wish to appear in public so soon after the suicide of his wife.”

The blowup of Powers was replaced by one of an equally handsome man in his late forties, blond, blue-eyed, and clean-shaven. The news announcer flipped to his next story, during which Elliot stopped eating and gave the screen his full attention.

“Private memorial services will be held today,” said the newsman, “for Nobel Prize-winning economist Dr. Martin Vreeland, who died yesterday morning of a heart attack at forty-eight. Dr. Vreeland, often called the father of EUCOMTO’s New Economic Miracle of fifteen years ago, became well known as an intransigent advocate of a limited-government, laissez-faire enterprise system. He was to have addressed the New York rally of Citizens for a Free Society this morning. Dr. Vreeland is survived by a wife and two children.”

Elliot now knew that the police had decided to let the world believe — for the time being — that his father was dead.

On second thought, he hoped it was only for the time being.

Nonetheless, by the time he had brushed his teeth, the world did not seem as frightening as it had the night before. If things went well, he might even have his family free by that evening. He had a firm conviction that Al would know exactly to whom he should go. Elliot decided shortly that it was time he got a move on.

Not long after nine, Elliot settled his tab, starting to walk to Times Square. It was one of those bitterly cold, windy — though cheerfully bright — mornings to which even lifelong New Yorkers seldom grow accustomed. He pulled sunglasses and a scarf (he had no hat) from his overcoat pocket, then turned up his collar. Elliot had gloves, also, but resisted putting them on to keep his hands free for possible shooting. Within minutes, though, his fingers were numb enough that he could hardly pull a trigger anyway, and he donned the gloves as well. His ears became numb, too, and his shoulder ached, but there was nothing he could do for them.

When Elliot arrived at the Rabelais Bookstore, there was a sign inside the door, which he read through an iron grill, that said, “CLOSED.” He panicked a moment, then read further to find a listing of hours: on weekdays the store was open from ten to ten. It was only nine-thirty, so Elliot walked back to Hotalings and perused foreign magazines for half an hour, finally buying a Paris Match to avoid being murdered by the manager. He read French well enough to understand a cover story entitled “La Mort des Etats-Unis?” A cover photograph — a still taken from the film Planet of the Apes — showed the Statue of Liberty half-buried in mud.

For reasons he could not fully identify, Elliot greatly resented the story, finding it strikingly presumptuous. Surely the country was in trouble, but it had been far worse during the Civil War, and the United States had survived that. Where did these foreigners get off already writing an obituary?

Elliot rolled up the magazine, shoving it into a coat pocket, and again walked to the bookstore. This time it was open. On the stool behind the counter was a man Elliot did not recognize, as thin as Al had been obese, with a pencil mustache and greasy black hair. He looked up from a tabloid headline “TEEN VAGINA!” and stared at Elliot. He pointed to the notice back of the counter saying, “BE 21 OR BE GONE.”

“Uh — I’m not trying to buy anything,” Elliot said quickly. “I just want to talk to Al.”

“Ain’t nobody here by that name.”

“But he was here yesterday — I talked to him. A bald man with a beard. Overweight.”

“Oh, him,” the skinny clerk said. “Goddam brownie. He quit last night. Said he was sick of this goddam New York winter and was headin’ south.”

“Did he leave a forwarding address?”

“Nope. Now beat it before a cop catches you in here.”

Elliot beat it.

Soon he stood at Times Square, cursing himself methodically. You fuckhead, you prick, you numbskull! . . . What are you a brownie? . . . If you’d walked back here last night instead of phoning, you might have caught him in time . . . You were carrying a fucking revolver and still you were afraid. . . . What chance would there’ve been of two attacks in the same night? . . . Now you’ve missed the one person you know to be on Dad’s team . . . . You’ve probably blown the entire game. . . .

Elliot vowed never again to allow fear to control his mind. Then he took a deep breath and walked on.

He had only walked a few steps, though, when he realized he was not walking to any place in particular. He was lost. He knew the names of the streets, all right, and where they went, but he did not know where they would lead him. Where to, kid? he asked himself silently, where to? There was no answer.

He stood, gazing up at the Oracle’s news marching across the top of One Times Square:

TEAMSTER PRESIDENT WARNS POSSIBILITY OF ARMED FORCES WILDCAT STRIKES IF PENTAGON DOES NOT MEET DEMANDS . . .

Are you just going to stand here forever?

NEW DOLLAR AGAIN DROPS SHARPLY AGAINST EUROFRANC IN HEAVY TRADING . . .

C’mon, c’mon, Elliot told himself, we haven’t got all day.

SENATE DEBATE ON WAGE-PRICE CONTROLS STALLED PENDING CFS PROTEST MARCHES IN SIX CITIES TODAY . . .

A helluva lot of good you are! Elliot told himself. An echo in his mind agreed.

In despair, he decided to choose a direction — any direction — and start walking. He hesitated another moment, then began marching up Broadway.

He had hardly started when a wiry, short man with curly black hair rushed up to him and said intensely, “If Thou art God, I offer myself and, in exchange, ask proof!”

Elliot kept walking. Not another Gloaminger.

“I said, ‘If Thou art God –’”

“I heard you the first time,” Elliot told him.

“Oh, hell,” said the Gloaminger. “You’re not Him, either.”

“Don’t you people ever give up looking?” Elliot asked.

“No time to talk,” the Gloaminger said. He handed Elliot a tract and walked up to a little girl nearby. “If Thou art God, I offer –”

Elliot looked the pamphlet over. It was called God Here and Now? — An Introduction to Gloamingerism, and was published by the Church of the Human God. The Septagram — symbol of the Gloaminger’s “Seven Paths to One God” — embellished the front of the tract.

The Gloamingers believed that God was a human, on earth “at this very moment,” but that He did not know Who He was. The question was supposed to trigger His memory in time for the Apocalypse. “Ask the question of the next person you meet!” the pamphlet said. “GOD WALKS ON EARTH TODAY. Now! He may reveal Himself to you!”

Elliot tossed the pamphlet into the nearest trash container. He was not about to start looking for God. He had enough trouble just finding his family.

Ten blocks farther up Broadway Elliot noticed wooden NYPD barricades along each sidewalk, and began to see an unusually large number of city police distributed around him — some sitting in police cars, some mounted on horseback, some on foot directing traffic or talking into headset transceivers. Elliot wondered what they were all there for, then remembered. The march and rally, of course! Broadway would be the parade route.

The first impulse he had was to put as much distance between himself and all those police as possible, but they did not seem to be interested in anything other than assuring an orderly demonstration, paying him no attention. His caution gave way for a moment to an even greater curiosity to see the demonstration his father was to have addressed, Elliot deciding that in the anonymous throng of bystanders he would be as unnoticed as the musicians in a striptease club.

Elliot first spotted the marchers as he approached Columbus Circle. He had no idea how many there were, but it seemed to be thousands, stretching uptown as far as he could see. He could hear from the distance that they seemed to be chanting repeatedly, but he could not yet make out the words. They were still too far off for him to read picket signs or banners. Finding himself a relatively uncrowded spot near the barricades at Columbus Circle, he waited.

Soon the march was upon him, led by a huge linen banner stretched across the first rank that read, “NO MORE CONTROLS!” with “Citizens for a Free Society” written in smaller letters underneath. Behind the banner were hundreds of smaller, handmade signs mounted on rolled cardboard (wooden picket signs were illegal), with slogans such as “CONTROL POLITICIANS, NOT PRICES! . . . SMASH RATIONING! . . .IN GOLD WE TRUST! . . .NO MORE BLUES!” and dozens that read “WAS VREELAND MURDERED?” This last shook Elliot.

Other signs had a distinct left-wing tinge. “THE FED IS SAPPING OUR SURPLUS LABOR VALUE!” and “MISES OVER MARX!”

A number of demonstrators carried black flags.

Now he concentrated on listening to the chanting, difficult to understand immediately but clearer with each repetition. A voice on a bullhorn asked, “WHAT DO WE WANT?” The marchers answered, “FREEDOM!” The bullhorn asked, “WHEN DO WE WANT IT?” The marchers responded, “NOW!” Elliot noticed as many middle-aged demonstrators as he did students, though the latter distinguished themselves by wearing black scarves wrapped around their foreheads.

The bullhorn stopped, the chanting quieted, but soon there started a new voice. It began chanting softly, and soon the marchers joined in, raggedly at first, then unifying and building up to a crescendo, “LAISSEZ-FAIRE! . . . LAISSEZ-FAIRE! . . . LAISSEZ-FAIRE!”

“Hey, Vreeland! Elliot Vreeland!” a voice cut through the chanting.

Elliot froze, trying to be as inconspicuous as possible in the hope that whoever had called him would believe he had experienced a case of mistaken identity. It was not to be.

“Hey, Vreeland! Elliot!”

Elliot saw that the voice belonged to his classmate, Mason Langley. Asshole, Elliot thought. He doesn’t even understand what this march is about. Elliot started praying that no one else would pay any attention in the midst of all the chanting, but it was already too late. He saw a New York policeman start looking around at mention of the name “Vreeland.” His only hope would be of Langley would just continue marching. . .

No such luck. Langley started pushing his way through the marchers trying to get to him. Elliot saw the policeman speaking into his helmet transceiver and knew he only had seconds; he slid under the barricades, and nonchalantly slipped into step with Langley and the marchers.

“I thought it was you,” Langley said. “Why didn’t you –”

“Shut up,” Elliot whispered savagely, “or you might get us both killed. Quick — give me your picket sign.”

Langley did so, somewhat confused, but it was already too late. The policeman shouted, “There! It’s the Vreeland boy!” and started running toward him. Elliot thought quickly, knew his one remaining chance and kept marching.

As the policeman caught up to Elliot and grabbed him, Elliot looked up innocently, shouting, “Hey, what the hell d’ja think you’re doing?”

The reaction was as expected. The policeman realized his mistake too late to prevent several marchers from clobbering him with their picket signs. The cardboard did not do him very much damage, but it did cause him to release Elliot, who took the opportunity to push through the marchers in the confusion and emerge on the east side of Columbus Circle. Then, picket sign and all, Elliot bolted into a full run up Central Park West.

When he felt he had run as far as he could without bursting his lungs, he slipped into the outside front basement of a brownstone building and sat on the steps, catching his breath.

Then he examined the picket sign he had been carrying.

It read, “FREE THE AGORA!”

#

Next in Alongside Night is Chapter VIII.

Alongside Night is
Copyright © 1979 J. Neil Schulman &
Copyright © 2010 The J. Neil Schulman Living Trust.
All rights reserved.


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