Common

I never much cared for Harvard Square with its pretty polish prep and pedigree. Midnight on a JP side street was more my place to play. That all changed when some Harvard kids decided to pad their prelaw and fill their beds by getting firespinning allowed on the Cambridge Common. Since then I’d been heading up the red line to the land of red brick near every night. Along with every burner from P-Town to Noho, who wanted to show their style for the City.

It was just after dark on one of those summer nights where the sky sags down under the heavy heat. The new and the young were having a burn while the old hands hung back and waited for night to fall in full. There were maybe twenty of us with staff and poi and fan, a half-dozen hangers-on who wanted to watch the dancing flames (and the dancing girls and boys), a half-dozen hounds sitting and drinking and laughing at whatever came their way. At any time there were maybe ten others just walking from one end of the Common to the other. Over in the playground I heard the sound of kids having fun and parents having less. Maybe fifty souls, top to top.

I was getting ready to show some fire and so I hadn’t touched a thing all evening. Not a thing. All the other burners were straight, at least straight enough that we couldn’t tell and so take their staffs away. Some of the watchers were passing around a bottle of wine and the hounds were heaving God knows what but everyone else was dry as desert sand. If we hadn’t all named fire as our drug of dearest choice, none of us would have been there to spend our Friday night.

This girl Sammy was getting up to spin, curved Sammy with the sunshine smile, and the moon was coming up and summer breeze came through the trees and an ambulance gave a cry out in the night. The I was moving, my body just moving, and I was just along for the ride.

It never occurred to me to fight it. You can’t fight it. You’ve nothing to fight it with. It’s not like you’re a prisoner stuck in a padded cell. You can see, hear and smell and feel, like you’re in a cell where every wall is a clear window but every wall is a mile away and you’re just floating in the middle. A reverse oubliette. A panopticon with a thousand guardsmen looking in at a single prisoner. High school junior prom, six beers and three shots and three joints down, and still I had been nothing like this.

I watched myself drop my staff and run around like a three year’s child. I watched myself leap and drop and roll and skip and fall and slam into other people with gay abandon. I hugged a tree. I did my first cartwheel. A guy grabbed me and threw me into a roll. I climbed a branch and fell from it. I punched a woman in the breast. A teenage girl came and ran his hand through my hair. I threw my staff like a spear. I poured out the fire fuel into a trashcan. I joined a dozen people in a dancing ring and then we threw ourselves apart and fell to the sides, laughing the same laugh.

Then there was nothing. The sound of traffic, the quiet of the night. I tried wiggling my fingers and realized I could. It came to me with a great sense of longing that I had come back to myself. I pushed myself to my feet and looked about me.

I was sore all over, wild-eyed and wary. Most others were about the same. Some were crying. Some were moaning, one or two clutching a wrist or an ankle. A guy ran sobbing into the night. Sammy threw up. But most of us just looked around, catching as many eyes as we could, as if to say It happened too? Then looked to the next person for as much confirmation as we could get.

We convinced ourselves, most of us, that it had happened. We all knew what had happened; we’d been there, as sure as if we’d watched it on TV. Anything more than that, who the fuck knows. And there was a lot of crying coming from the kiddies over at the playground, not the least because their mommies were freaking out – or just had.

A few people called 911. Three police cars showed up, then a half-dozen ambulances and a fire truck for good measure. Everyone got a shock blanket. Everyone got vitals taken. They kept us there past midnight making sure we were okay. By then the kids were asleep on the grass, the adults were either well recovered or allowed themselves to give in to shakes and shivers, the EMTs pronounced us healthy, and the cops had no idea what in the midmorning hell was going on.

They called me for questions every day for a few days. Then they stopped. Nobody with a badge or button ever answered a single question of mine. The newspaper ran an article speculating about a gas main leak and so that’s what everyone believed. No matter how they denounced it, out loud or to themselves, it was an explanation. The mind abhors a vacuum. It got believed.

I let myself believe the premise that something had caused it. Some natural phenomenon. Maybe impurities in the gas we were burning. Maybe acid spiked in the water fountain. Maybe… I didn’t know. Something, though. Something had guided my hands and my eyes and done the same with everyone on the Common – and nobody else.

I stayed away for a week, from the Common as from fire and from life and definitely from drink. When I started going back the place had a distance to it, like the background mountains in an early painting. I got over it, pretty much and pretty soon, and then it was just a patch of grass and pile of ugly statues and I was just a guy out there tossing a torch.

I went back the next night, the next and the next. Nothing happened. Nothing like that. I went back and back until the feeling of unfeeling left my limbs and my eyes stopped darting back and forth to prove just that they could. Soon it was a memory, then a dream. Then it was both, as it was, and so it stayed.

Two weeks later, and it happened again.

It was a quiet night. There were maybe twenty people on the Common. I saw their movements. I saw their faces, their eyes. I knew we were together in remove. Then I heard the screaming.

I realized a part of it was coming from my own throat.

We howled like animals, all of us. We shrieked like angry monkeys in their jungle. We attacked each other. We attacked everything. We swung staffs at each other, whether they were blossomed to fire or still ripe with oil or dry as winter twigs. We beat each other. We whirled and whooped and beat each other. We attacked the trees. We attacked the ground. We attacked the sky.

It was terrible to see, and somehow liberating. Like a barfight blamed on beer or a bed on love or lust, it had happened to me but not through me, by but not because. Which was a strange certainty to hold when I was left standing, holding a smoldering firestaff, and the people around me were braying or bleeding or crying or clutching themselves where they were bruised or broken. Some backed away from me, the only one left standing. Some didn’t seem to move at all.

I called the police. I wasn’t the only one. And they came, in force they came, took one look around and arrested me. I didn’t really blame them for that. I spent a nice night in a jail-cell mostly staring at the wall. I’d watched myself beat people with a metal pole, whether I had controlled it or not I had some fucking wall-staring to do. I hugged myself in the gray blanket they gave me. And nursed my bruises, because I’d sure gotten enough of those.

They took my statement which was enough like everyone else’s for them to realize that something was fucked up in the state of Denmark. I had Sammy come and bail me out, once she found a route that wouldn’t take her within half a mile of the Common – smart girl. I spent the next two weeks with some nice big felonies hanging over my head. I stayed the hell away from the Common, stayed away from anything and anyone, and prayed, just prayed, that it would happen again.

It did.

I wasn’t anywhere near the Common. Thank God. This time it was bad. Really, really bad. So much so that I saw it on the news. There must have been two hundred people involved. Two died. About a hundred ended up in the ER. Apparently there had been a few cars parked on the Common when it started, and people got into them, and then people just lined up to get run over. Those who could stand did so, and got hit again.

The police brought me in for questioning. They treated me like an expert, brought me coffee, called me Sir. I told them they could go fuck themselves until I no longer had their bouquet of felonies wound into a crown about my brow. And I stuck to that line, so that they sent me home. And the next day found the charges had been dropped, and a radio car was waiting to escort me Downtown.

It was then that I realized that they were even more scared than I was.

They’d closed the Common. The excuse was that it was a crime scene but we both knew it was the fact that it could become one again, at any time. I didn’t have much to add. I explained what it was like, what it felt like, what it didn’t feel like. That last one was easy. It didn’t feel like anything I’d ever known.

They were quite at a loss. They asked me, me!, if I had any suggestions. I said, yeah, keep the fucking Common closed.

Failing that?

I thought about what I’d seen on the news, and what I’d seen my body doing not long before. Make sure everyone there is wearing plate mail, I said. And knows how to take a fucking punch.

The lead detective got a look in his eye that I didn’t like at all.

The next day I saw the Common was closed, DPW placards all over the place, guys in hard hats standing around and looking unionishly idle. I didn’t need more than my eyes and my brain to know that half those guys, if not more, were cops gone undercover. I couldn’t guess at what kind of cop, Cambridge, Boston, something beyond. Nobody’d said the word Terrorism that I’d heard, but if I was thinking it then the professionally paranoid certainly were. I decided not to hang around to find out. Possession is bad enough; the Patriot Act was enough to put me to my heels.

I found my way there once a day to keep tabs on their operation. For two weeks the ersatz workcrews got very little done even by Boston standards. Then I guess their overtime ran out because they disappeared, leaving the Common open once again.

Sammy begged me not to go. I had to. Things were safer, I assured her, hoping that they were. But I would have gone anyway. For the same reason I spin fire, for the same reason I do all the other things I do. Variety may be the spice of life but danger’s the life it sweetens. Varieties of safety are diversities of dull. If I’d wanted that I could have moved to fucking Newton.

So I went. I brought my staff and my fuel-bucket and there I was, sitting on the grass, wondering if any other spinners would show. They didn’t. There weren’t a dozen people on the whole Common that night. Three were cops in uniform – without sidearm, I noticed – and I could tell three others were cops in plainclothes. I saw two hobos, a girl jogging, a guy playing guitar with a rose in his capo. Over at the playground was a father and three kids. And me.

I didn’t know what I was doing. I sat there for twenty minutes, then enlisted one of the clearly-undercover-cops to safety me for a burn. It was the scariest spin of my life, thinking at any moment I’d get taken over, wonder if I’d still Be There to catch a toss, wondering if I caught the staff what I’d do with it, who I’d go after with it, who I’d give it to and they’d come after me. I was so nervous I lit my hair on fire. I stopped and dropped and rolled, and despite the objections of the plainclothes I went back to my routine.

And my worst fear came true. I threw a rotor toss, and then I was gone. It spun and spun then fell to the ground before me. I didn’t care. I was in ecstasy.

I felt like a passenger on a 747 which has just lifted its nose and climbed up to Heaven. I was looking out the window and seeing the pink clouds and pearly gates and all that can fill a mind with wide-eyed wonder. It wasn’t the same as being there, I’m sure. I don’t know if I could have survived getting any closer; a moment in true Heaven and I’d have been speeding off to my reward, no doubt straight south and rather far away.

I felt joy, perfect, child-like, less explainable than orgasm and in every other way far beyond it. If such is the ecstasy described by monks and mystics then I understand why they live their lives the way they do. If it isn’t, then the poor guys are missing out.

I watched my body fall to its knees. I watched my neck crane back and stare bright-eyed at the night sky. From the corner of my eyes, far away they might be, I saw the plainclothes doing the same, and the three uniformed cops likewise. After time-beyond-time it was gone, and I fell to the ground sobbing like a baby, half exhausted of joy, half dying in the knowledge that life ever after would be bad and bitter in the aftertaste of paradise.

One of the cops recovered himself well enough to radio in. Twenty blue-and-whites came and surrounded the area, then one ambulance for every two of us, then a cop with his weapon drawn brought each of us an EMT. They didn’t know what to do with us. None of us was hurt. At length they had to sedate us, each and every one of us. Even two of the kids. And synthetic morphine was well and good but after that glimpse of the afterlife it might as well have been a cough drop.

The next day we were back at the Common, all of us. The father had left his kids at home but otherwise we were there, united by what we had been through, what we had felt, or at least seen ourselves feel. We stood together, then we got down on our knees, and we prayed, just prayed, that it would happen again. It didn’t.

There weren’t three other people on the Common. Hours later and we had to force ourselves to go home. The next day we went back, the next and the next, all in hope. Nothing.

I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t eat. Sammy went to stay with one of her other boyfriends. If she hadn’t arranged my medical leave I wouldn’t have had a job to go back to. I felt like I was withdrawing from smack except instead of nausea or needles there was just lack and loss.

Eventually I got over it. At least, mostly. Eventually I stopped going to the Common. At least, not every day.

A few weeks later I ran into the father. Not at the Common, just around. He looked bad, probably as bad as I did. He had his three kids with him. Two looked like zombies. The third looked a little weirded out, a little neglected but otherwise just a kid.

I remembered that only two of the kids had needed sedation after the last go-around. The third kid, the kid who now looked normal, had been fine. Confused. A little cryful. But fine.

It struck me like a sunspot that he hadn’t felt it, hadn’t with the rest of us gone away.

I bent down and took him by the shoulders. I did it as gently as I could, which wasn’t enough. His father didn’t care. The kid stared at me, inches from tears. I looked him in the eye and I asked him, slowly and carefully, just what had happened that night on the Common.

He looked to his father, who nodded absently. He answered me, speaking with slow words, that all of a sudden all the other people in the park had felt what he felt.

I stared at him.

He started to sniffle.

How did he know? I asked.

He shook his head. He just knew!

And he felt – joy?

He sniffed. He was on medicine. It made him feel weird.

Medicine?

P’scriptin.

Pescri… perscription?

He nodded. For his teeth. He gave a proud, quivering smile, showing the gaps of a youthful stumble or two. Just baby teeth. For which he hadn’t been given baby asperin.

I realized I’d let my hands drop from his sides. I realized I had stood up. I felt half as if I was possessed again. The father looked at me idly. The two other kids looked at nothing much at all.

I stared at them, wild-eyed, then ran for the police station.

The kid had done it, I shouted to them. I didn’t know how, but the kid had done it.

What?

One kid! I shouted to the lead detective, to the whole room. A dozen people on the Common and we’d all felt what one kid in the fucking playground had been feeling. We’d felt his little overdose of oxycontin like it was right in our heads, purified and paradised, that’s what we’d been given.

How do you know? they asked me.

Find them, I said, staring their skepticism down as only certainty can. Find other people. From the other nights. Find the ones who didn’t go away. Find them! I don’t know what the fuck is going on but those were the people in our heads. In everybody’s heads. Find them. They’re the ones.

The detective sat me in an interview room for an hour, I think just to let me calm down. I did, and then I made noise until they let me out. I got a call the next day, not from him but from the undercover who had safetied for me that night we’d gone to paradise. Sharing such a thing forms a bond. Well enough for him to tell me that they’d started interviewing people. Everybody. Even the kids.

I sent Sammy a dozen roses. A few days later I sent her a dozen dozen. She came back and I tried to make it up to her. No work, no fire, no mood for richer play, what else did I have to do?

A week later and I got a letter, no return address. No signature either but I knew it came from my friend the cop. They’d found more, it said. It was easy enough once they knew what they were looking for. Every night there’d been one person who hadn’t been touched. One person, and only one. And each time the person had been a kid, a little kid playing over in the playground.

There were a thousand questions I wanted to ask my friendly informant. Clearly he didn’t want to be contacted; for a number of reasons I decided to respect that. It didn’t matter. A few days later they called me in for questioning. During which they told me most, and I was able to infer the rest. Such as it was.

It only happened sometimes. It only happened at night. It only happened when there were kids in the playground. It only affected people on the Common. It didn’t last long. It could feel like anything. Anything that some kid, one kid, was feeling; anything he wanted the people there to feel.

The kid that first night had been a regular little kid, a seven-year-old girl up from Roxbury with her parents. The second night, the attacking night, it had been a six-year-old boy with a twin. That third night had been an autistic nine-year-old who’d been having a very bad day. And that fourth day a stoned seven-year-old who’d given us a taste of chasing the dragon, chasing it right up into the sky.

Beyond that they knew nothing. Not why, not how, nor who would be the child touched nor when it would occur again. Just looking at what had happened so far told us the extremes to which it could go. It was a danger as yet unconquered, a chance not yet predictable.

So they closed the common with iron gates while they thought of what to do.

The town got pissed when those fences went up. The police had to explain what was going on. Nobody believed it. What was there to believe? The police passed the buck to the town council who realized they needed to pass the buck and fast. They called it a Scientific Phenomenon with an emphasis on Science and said it would be investigated and then cured. And the colleges would be undertaking the investigation. In Cambridge, that’s the way to pass the buck.

Three colleges formed a committee of researchers. MIT, Harvard, Cambridge College; brains, bucks, and brawn, or something like that. It was overseen by post-docs, run by undergrads, and the results typed up by professors. A lot of stipends got paid on it, a lot of work-study hours logged, and above and beyond a whole hell of money spent.

Even the most right-minded scientist could see that this was something none of them had seen. This was the Uncharted Territory for which they all longed. So at least they wrote on their funding applications. They collected all sorts of data: the physicists measured light and sound, the chemists took samples from soil and air, the biologists of every animal and plant, the clinicians talk and tissue from everyone involved. Sammy and I ended up eating pretty well off of the research bonuses they paid me. It seemed a shame when I had to go back to work.

They began running experiments, there on the common. Putting ten people on the grass and one kid in the playground. Putting one person on the grass and the ten on the playground. Different sorts of people. People doing different things. And hoping, hoping, that It would happen again.

It did.

And again.

They recorded when it happened. They compared it to the other times. They recorded to whom it happened. They compared it to the other people. They interviewed everybody, took samples from everywhere, paid good people good money just to try to think of new things for them to scrape and study. All they knew was it kept happening, no how or why in sight.

So they kept at it. Because that’s what you do to something new.

Months went by. Dozens of Events occurred. A kid and night and the Common: everything else varied, everything else seemed a show of random chance. But random isn’t good enough for science. It shouldn’t be, maybe, but it isn’t. So they kept testing. And they kept recording. And as far as I know they still are, to this day.

Nobody’s been let on the Common since. Nothing could interfere with their experiments. They’d build walls around it if they could, build a building there, a lab with only one object of study If one day they come to think that it won’t interfere with the magic that they study, so they will. Until then the Cambridge Common has more floodlights than Fenway Park and more bits of ticking tech than a scrubroom at Mass General. And the gates remain closed, and likely to remain.

I miss it. I miss the feeling. I miss the bliss I know it can bring. I miss the terror too; I miss the release. Sammy keeps asking me why I don’t volunteer to be a test subject – it’s Science now, so she thinks it’s safe and sound. I couldn’t do it. It’s not the same. A managed mystery… it’s just not the same.

I guess I’ll have to find another place to spin.

-the stone benches on the Common, 2011

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~ by davekov on 29 June 2011.

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