The Year of No Incident
A SHORT STORY
During my time at Vassar, a distinguished teacher of the classics had addressed our hall with one of those offhanded lectures - insignificant, more curious than anything. Had it been Homer’s Odyssey? Aeneid? I don’t know. I doubt that she remembers anything she said - isn’t that how those small, uncanny moments tend to go? But I remember: grey November light, the empty trees outside, a thrumming radiator at my back. Professor Tait - who still went, per the old custom, by “Miss” - seemed to be speaking less to us than to herself. -- And what phenomenon, she mused aloud, is meant by LEPSIS?
As a suffix, she said, we can trace it to the Greek. It is an eerie word. It pops up everywhere, in modern usage - see the medical conditions cata-LEPSY, narco-LEPSY, epi-LEPSY. For a layperson, the form is necessarily detached from its more violent Greek and Latin senses. LEPSIS. Signifying capture, abduction, kidnapping, seizure. Where LEPSIS is involved, something is often at the mercy of another power. See ana-LEPSIS, as in the whisking-away of Christ (a la Romulus?) into the heavens, and theo-LEPSIS, the possession of mere mortals by the consciousness of gods. Worshippers of Dionysus (and, subsequently, Christ) are described thusly.
LEPSIS. Some of its most unsettling usages are literary. We have nympho-LEPSIS: the abduction of young men by nymphs, clinging like vines, insatiable. Syl-LEPSIS: a verb forcibly assimilates two objects into a grotesque and hydric body. Meta-LEPSIS: when the levels of a narrative collapse upon each other, as when Aeneas looks upon the gates of Dido and sees himself, or when Goethe passes his future self on an obscure provincial road in low Alsace. LEPSIS. So you see, girls, we could make the case that all of language is, to some extent, abduction.
This was the memory that surfaced sometimes, momentarily but vividly, inside my mind. Often unprompted - after graduating, I found work at Frazier, a civil engineering firm near Albany, so no Greek, and little Latin. But sometimes, when I arrived into some basement, or a nightclub in disuse, or an old theater that had been closed, I felt it. LEPSIS. Miss Tait lectured me out of the past as through a one-way radio, on LEPSIS, on its etymology, on being at the mercies of another power. What’s a building, anyway (she says) but an imposed experience, an entrance into someone else’s mind? And what’s a visiting inspector but a necessary captive for a while? So you see girls, architecture is abduction. LEPSIS. Greek. Kidnapping. Seizure.
I was being seized, I thought, as I passed through the hallway leading into the library building of the Seminary St. Jean de La Lande. I’d had to enter through a lecture hall, and that was fine enough, with all the worn wood banisters and tarnished chandeliers I’d grown accustomed to at Vassar. But this passageway forewent all that. The walls were cinderblock, with a multitude of metal doors on either side. No windows, only bright electric lights in metal frames. It gave a subterranean impression. Industrial, I wrote down on my pad. I thought, airless. Inhospitable. A space you’re forced to cross.
READING ROOM, read the first door, and down the hall: SEMINARY RECORDS. MAINTENANCE. WASHROOM.
I tried the doorknobs. MAINTENANCE was unlocked, and the thumping of the generators rose into a grating roar; the sound sent knifelike pain into my temples. My eyes picked out bins, carts, cleaning supplies, all chiseled out in that obnoxious light. Hot air, and that universal acrid smell of underplaces - must, moth, critter droppings, and asbestos - pressed into my face. It felt like breathing in a snuffbox full of dirt.
Had one of the ---
(Victims, said my brain, stupidly)
--- casualties happened here? I bit my lip. The body of a seminarian had been found near a set of boilers - 1964. Cause of death unknown, but presumed a combination of age, stress, heat, and faintness. I couldn’t see the replacement boilers here, but felt them, somewhere in the labyrinthine depths of MAINTENANCE stretching beyond me, back into the dark.
By this point, I’d grown accustomed past deaths in buildings I inspected, how those certain spaces lay over the floor like drying water and Wet Floor signs, grave but evaporating. So no fear for me - only frustration. Potential hazard, open door, I wrote. Then I hid the notes inside my skirt pocket as I closed the hallway door and headed for the library. There, I was met with more powerful lights. They sheared white angles through the black shelves, turning specks of floating dust to incandescent bugs.
Squinting, I proceeded to the front desk, where one of the seminarians waited.
“Yes. Miss Babcock? With the State Labor Department?”
“Yes. Well, they commission Frazier Limited for some inspections out here. I work for Mr. Frazier.” We shook. It was the perfect handshake, rote enough it hardly registered as contact.
“There’s a few patrons still here, since you’re here early,” he said. “But they’ll be gone for close in twenty minutes.” He gestured at a reading table piled high with blueprints, documents, and record-books. “Here’s everything you needed.”
“Good. Thank you.”
“We’ve got coffee, if you’d like,” he offered. “We only ask you drink it over there, away from the material.”
I accepted, and he brought some in a paper cup. It was the day’s dregs, strong and flaky, and it tasted like the terrible canned stuff we’d finally phased out at Frazier.
“Hot. That’s a hazard,” I joked. My voice had gone into a fast, Girl-Friday register.
“Mmm-hmm.” He returned glumly to the desk to clean up a few things, his black-clad figure dim and distant underneath the lights. I’m supposed to be approving you, I thought. Immediately, I considered throwing out the coffee and proceeding to the table, but decided to walk, calmly, past the rows of glass display cases nearby the doors.
WHO WAS ST. JEAN DE LA LANDE? read one display, with yellowed clippings of newspaper articles. On one, a bearded man with hands together cast his eyes wistfully to heaven, with a caption: Jean De La Lande was a French lay missionary martyred in 1646 near Saratoga Springs. Below it, a photograph of seminarians in black, near a large church: Father Simon’s trip to Our Lady of Martyrs shrine (Jean Le La Lande death site). But the last line of a typewritten biography caught my eye most of all: La Lande was captured alongside Father Jogues by enemy Mohawks, who executed Jogues. La Lande was killed whilst attempting to discover what had happened to the body.
It had started in 1959, whatever you could say “it” was. At first, you called it an untimely passing: a night caretaker found sprawled in the stacks one morning, with the coroner deducing cardiac arrest.
In 1960, you’d say that it was a strange coincidence: a high school student fell, as evidence would have it, struck his head on the floor, and never woke up afterwards. Nobody knew how long he’d lain there, really - he was found, rigid, at close in an obscure nook, and could have entered anytime.
In 1961, it was a worrying pattern, as the local news would put it. One of the seminarians found the campus electrician slumped over a cart of books, completely cold. Head and hands dangling over the other side, as though he’d reached for purchase. Nothing interesting about his body, really, except the fact that it was dead, and blood was pooling at both ends, since he was folded at the middle. All his tools were at the fuse-box he’d been fixing in the room adjacent, so the best explanation was that he’d been shocked, gone to get help, and succumbed to heart-failure within a minute.
It was a tentative theory, offered almost as an apology by the coroner as he reluctantly declared the cause of death “UNKNOWN” on paper. It was his biggest fear, he later told the news, to have to write down “CAUSE UNKNOWN” about a death. When you had nothing left to say but “CAUSE UNKNOWN” (he explained) you were actually looking at something past the limits of your knowledge. The real cause was there, all right, inscribed on the body you had on your table. But the test for finding that specific COD just hadn’t been invented yet. The instrument you needed to observe it was still being developed by some neurotic graduate student - right now, or next year, or a hundred years from now. The cellular mechanism that had shorted out and spelled this person’s death lay hidden like a gnostic mystery in the deep places of the body - microscopic demons operating in the darkness like the fish in unprobed regions of the ocean, as unconscious of our world as we were of theirs.
Miles away, in Poughkeepsie, Miss Tate was lecturing to a class of girls as the radiator thrummed and grey light crawled in from the windows. A-cata-LEPSY, she was saying, is the crowning doctrine of the Skeptics. It justly terrified the ancient world, for it asserted that all “understanding” is illusion, that uncertainty and helplessness are the essential state of humankind.
The Skeptics had embraced this, said Miss Tate, yielded politely to its reign. A-cata-LEPSY. Meanwhile, the coroner was staring deep into its awful power. CAUSE UNKNOWN. Gazing down at the right-angled body that had failed out of sight, been taken out of sight, and now defied the sight of medicine. If he’d had Greek at his disposal, he’d (perhaps) have named the case, as ancients in their terror must have named the demon epi-LEPSIA so many thousand years ago.
But he just shook his head and wished it all out of his life. UNKNOWN. UNKNOWN. He thought it was a culmination, this frustrating autopsy, of all these cases at the seminary - the concluding note.
And isn’t that how most beginnings tend to go?
“D’you need a ride?” a young man offered on his way out.
“No,” I said. “Thank you.” I’d been finishing the coffee, looking at the Safety display. It was a bulletin board of Handy Tips and How We Can Look Out For Each Other.
He was bright-eyed, if a little haggard from his studying. Immediately he stammered, “I’m actually a student at Cornell. I’m just home here for Thanksgiving.” Unspoken: no vow of celibacy.
“Graduate. Vassar,” I said.
“Oh!” he said. “Well, it’s practically an arranged marriage now.”
We shook. His hand was warm and pink.
“Are you home for the holidays?” he said.
“No. I’m a building inspector.”
His smile fell apart. “I - ooohhh.”
“Oh - that.”
We stood for a moment, both looking at the Safety display. A smiling dog and smiling cat walked across the street together, proving that We Can Work Together to Prevent Accidents!
“Well, I’ve honestly never felt unsafe here,” he said. “How many thousand people come in every year? And nothing happens? I mean, it’s obviously bad, though.”
“Mmm-hmm,” I said.
“I feel like they inspect it every year. That’s what my folks say.”
“Well, different inspections assess different criteria. Enable different courses of action.”
“What’s yours for?”
“I can’t disclose that. Sorry.”
He whistled comically. It was a bit of a relief to see, especially since I knew that if I’d told the truth - that the State wanted grounds for a new warrant for civil negligence, or possibly even criminal negligence or foul play - he wouldn’t have smiled at all. But for now, he’d escaped my taciturn, grim little world like an oblivious cartoon character - like the dog and cat on the poster, walking arm-and-arm around a manhole.
“I don’t know how you study underneath these lights,” I said.
“Yeah, it’s pretty bad,” agreed Cornell. “They used to be dimmer, but they had to put new ones in. Because. Well, you know.”
“1963,” I said.
A brief searching look crossed his eyes. I could almost hear him thinking: 1963. Which one was that again? And then a quiet shake of the head: It’s gotten bad, hasn’t it, if one has to ask that?
But then he rubbed his chin, and absentmindedly reached for some paper in his letterman pocket that he’d used to write down some call numbers. “You gotta pen?”
He wrote a name, phone, and address on the back. “My folks love having people for Thanksgiving.”
“Oh, that sounds lovely. I will let you know.”
“See ya, Vassar.”
“Good-bye, Cornell,” I said.
He waved, walked through the dark cinderblock hallway, and turned out into the lecture hall. His head, lit by the warmer chandeliers out there, disappeared as he bounded down the stairs. I imagined that head already brightening with thoughts of home-cooked meals, wintery dates, impromptu football scrimmages. And then final exams, frat send-offs, Cornell and its towers underneath their snowy blanket, “Auld Lang Syne” echoing down the cobbled alleyways.
In 1962, the Seminary library observed no instances of occupational fatality. As the year progressed, and the campus rhythms proceeded uninterrupted, the sense of dread had faded. When the clock struck midnight on December 31st, the whole town felt a happy tremor (I suspect). As if some curse had broken, some magical immunity had been obtained, some folkloric hero could finally return home after a-year-and-a-day.
There really is no better feeling in the world - no better knowledge than It’s dealt with now. I could see it in the eyes of clients when I told them what the problem was and who to call; I could see it in my boss, Frazier, who sighed exhaustedly when I managed to pass a troubled project to some other firm. I felt it trailing from Cornell, as he went down the stairs, thoughts of fatalities and danger dissipating from his mind.
It’s dealt with now. Your dishes washed. Your taxes filed. A cab called for a tipsy guest. Your laundry folded and your meeting for the next day cancelled. 1962, Year of No Incident, had ended, ended with snow-covered seminary towers and bingo clubs singing God rest ye merry, gentlemen. Out in the wider world, the Russians had withdrawn their missiles out of Cuba, and the President had ransomed all the prisoners from Bay of Pigs. Somewhere in the night sky, John Glenn was circling the earth. The coroner - who’d been so terrified before - took his family to see Gregory Peck in To Kill a Mockingbird on Christmas, and he drifted to sleep in the dark, warm theater. “I just remember wishing,” he would say to close friends later, “just to stay there, stuck in time.”
And in some winter nights upstate, it seemed just slightly possible. You remembered Rip Van Winkle in the Catskills, and you meditated for a moment at a certain star or churchbell in the distance, how it seemed to emanate out of a storybook. Half of your brain would entertain the notion that you’d found some hidden pocket in the field of time - some “solitude,” as Irving called the little hill where Rip had slept.
But then the other half reminded you that Rip Van Winkle, crucially, woke up.
It was just me and Toselli now. He was at the desk, wiping it down for the night. I was rubbing at my eyes, trying to tease out any negligence at all from the records sprawled in front of me. The first thing that I’d checked had been the gas monitors and heat detector records - most places had them installed by now, but sometimes you had holdouts. The Seminary had installed a system around the same time most large buildings had - 1956. New units purchased 1963. Toselli had even laid out a binder where they tracked the installation of new batteries every four months.
They’d actually had Frazier in before, to carry out one of the first inspections after the second death in 1960. Frazier had recommended a different model of step-ladder and lower shelves, and the receipts for these were stapled to the report. Another firm, Goldstein & Marks, had compiled a “Dust and Airborne Pathogen Profile,” given the higher statistical risk for lung disease, asthma, and allergen sensitivity in libraries. They had formulated a daily cleaning plan. I noticed Toselli doing it now - he was on Step 4: vacuum daily after close, and empty vacuum bag outside library premises.
I folded my arms and lay my head down for a moment. Father Toselli, coming back with the empty vacuum, asked, “Are you all right, Miss?”
“Oh,” I said. “I’m fine. I’m only frustrated. Father, you’ve one of the safest properties I’ve ever toured.”
His somber lips pressed into a line. “Yes,” he said. “It has cost us a good deal.”
“I can see that.”
“Would you like more coffee?”
“I would. Thank you.”
I walked the shelves as I drank, peering at the rows of dark books. Huge sets of leather volumes - the complete Aquinas, the complete Malebranche, the complete records of Trent - sat with a pleasing regularity, in a variety of languages. Lives of Jesuits - La Lande, Jogues, Jolliet, Marquette - took up a few rows. A small section of New England literature lay in the back, all pleasantly worn, smelling like fall leaves. I opened up The Collected Stories of Washington Irving as I walked. He’d called the hill a “solitude,” no? Yes, he had.
In 1963, it was resumption of a deadly trend. A visiting lecturer found in the washrooms of the library, not breathing (cause of death UNKNOWN, ruled the shaking coroner). This spurred a full-blown panic in the town, ghost stories in the nearby middle school, and the spate of renovations in the seminary, from the harrowing lights to the new smoke alarms. A plan was made to relocate the library to the basement of another building, but the inconvenience was deemed too expensive. The Seminary, after all, had already been forced to pay for the improvements and several more inspections, carried out by independent agencies, police, the National Fire Prevention Association, and the New York State Department.
In 1964, it was the curse. That year, the seminary bowed to public pressure, laid off its library staff, and assigned a new one. Father Toselli replaced the vehement, defiant Father Simon, who wrote lengthy letters to the newspaper defending his innocence as library director. Nevertheless, that was the year they found the janitor dead by the boilers - cause of death UNKNOWN.
“Who found him?” I said.
“I did,” muttered Toselli.
A few days later, a local member of the Klan attempted to burn down the library, but he was foiled by the fire suppression system. From the moment his homemade projectile of kerosene and rags had fluttered through the broken window and landed on the flame-retardant carpeting, the safety protocols had worked. Alarms blared, and the lump of fire crumpled as it starved, shrinking and shrinking into flakes of carbon. Father Toselli arrived after the fire department rang him up, and saw only a patch of darkness on the carpet and a film of soda dust from the extinguishers to signify a fire had even happened.
“Surely,” I said, “any self-respecting cursed library would have struck him dead. The Klansman, I mean.”
Father Toselli was an indifferent to jokes now as he’d been when I arrived. “Maybe,” he said, unsmiling. “Maybe it would have, if it could. I thought about it for a while, but…. after all, he never came inside.”
“You’ve been inside,” I pointed out. “For two years.”
“Well,” he said, “what haunted mansion kills the butler?”
Coffee done, I went back to the documents. There was an air of escalating desperation to them - they became increasingly erratic and unfocused, with no logical progression. Mercury tests - well below recommended thresholds. Radiation levels - no anomalies. And when a small faction of priests had carried out a quiet exorcism in September, 1964, there were no signs of a disturbance. They paraded with their holy oils through the library and MAINTENANCE and READING ROOM and ARCHIVES, and recorded it with necessary forms in Latin.
Using the Xerox machine, I made some copies of the most important tests, feeling my temples throb under the lights. I glanced at Toselli, reading a newspaper.
The idea that the priest had anything to do with this made little sense to me. I’d met too many landlords, too many strange, unscrupulous, horrific little people to mistake him for someone like that. Looking closely, I could see his eyes starting to bat shut, see his sips of coffee slow, his head turn slowly to one side.
As midnight hurred round, I finished up. As quickly as I could, I copied the blueprint by sections, and tucked the pages in my briefcase. As a final assurance, Toselli gave me a brief tour of the floor, taking me through the READING ROOM (a few worn desks and couches) and MAINTENANCE (which, with its lights on, seemed far smaller and less frightening, though it still smelled).
And, breathing easily, I felt that feeling - It’s over, it’s dealt with now - come over me. I had a hotel room nearby, and a train back to Albany the day after tomorrow. It was mid-November, and a few light snows were falling. My frigidity towards Cornell suddenly evaporated as I thought about tomorrow, thought about the look of streetlights in the snow, the glow of shop windows. I felt inside my pocket for the sheet of paper with his name - and found it gone.
“Do you mind waiting a minute?” I asked Father Toselli. “I think I dropped something.”
He waved his hand in an “of course” gesture.
I ducked around the floor where I’d been sitting, around the display cases, but found nothing.
“What was it?”
“Just a slip of paper - ”
For a few minutes, he helped me look, but none of us could spot it. I checked the garbage bins, but they were empty. He suggested that maybe I’d used it as a bookmark, but I flipped through the books I’d left out on the cart, and came up short.
“Did you drop it when we went through the back?”
“Oh. If I did, it’s really not much trouble,” I said. “We don’t have to look.”
He shrugged, and unlocked MAINTENANCE. Feeling more tired by the minute, I retraced my steps with him, saw nothing, and we returned to the front. “I’m terribly sorry,” he said. “What was on it? If I see it in the morning, I can let you know.”
“No, no,” I said. “It’s quite alright.” I’d grown so nervous that my entertainment of Cornell had faded into panic again. I did a once-over of the books, saw nothing, and sighed.
“Well,” he said. “I’m terribly sorry.”
“Thank you, Father,” I said. “But it’s really nothing.”
Then I laughed.
Somehow The Collected Stories of Washington Irving had ended up in with the blueprints and the record-books. It was a frightened kind of laugh - I didn’t really know why.
It’s because, some part of me explained, you’ll be alone in the hotel room all day, watching the snow fall, kicking yourself. “I don’t suppose,” I asked, “if I could check this out and return it tomorrow?”
“No,” he said, brow creasing, “that won’t be a problem.”
I felt my eyes shutting again as he handed me a temporary card on cheap paper, and I scribbled my name down on the checkout slip. He yawned, pressed down the date stamp, and handed it back to me.
“Thank you,” I said.
“I hope you won’t be reading the ghost stories, Miss,” he said, a little archly.
“No,” I said. “The cozy ones, perhaps.” And I yawned too.
We shook hands - still rote, but slightly more friendly - and he locked up some boxes at the desk. “Thank you,” I said. “I hope you don’t have nights like this too often.”
“Well, I serve the Lord. Whatever time,” he said, and gave a small, thin-fingered wave.
That was the last I saw of him, as daintily I shut the door and stepped into the cold, cinderblock hallway. But it didn’t seem so cold now: the lights, at first glance, had dimmed, and glowed a gentle gold around me. All the lights under the doors had turned that soft, candlelit color too. They must have a night setting, I thought, as I turned my pockets for the rental keys.
The door into the main building was locked; I leaned, it didn’t give. Toselli must have locked it as he cleaned - sometimes you did things automatically - so I turned back.
The door into the library was locked as well. I knocked, expecting to see him tidying up, but he was out of sight. The overheads in there had dimmed as well; the honey-colored light gleamed off the leather books as they lay sleeping. It made the whole arrangement of the room - the carts, the shelves - look slightly different than when I’d left.
I knocked. “Hello? Father?”
And waited for what seemed like an eternity. He must have gone int0 the back. I knocked on MAINTENANCE, turned back to the library, knocked again. “Father?”
I pressed my shoulder against the door; it didn’t budge. “Hello?” Sparing my fist, I used the Irving book to knock. It sounded deep and hard against the glass. “Hel-lo?”
I knocked a little faster, and the calling card slipped out. I grabbed it, slid it back in - and looked down. Something was odd about it, and I looked it over a few times. “Oh,” I said. Aloud, as if to anyone. The date stamp was wrong. It was my name, the month and day, and 62. Tired and numb, my mind slipped back into its recitations. 1962. Year with no incidents. Fatalities resume in 1963. The stamp probably got shifted when he wiped it off. I leaned against the door again, and yawned.
I waited for a long time. Rapping sometimes at the door, half-dozing in a haze of tiredness and worried sweat. Perhaps Toselli had gone out another way, and I’d be here until morning. Perhaps he was simply taking an exceptionally long time at some obscure task. Perhaps…
Sometimes I stared up at the lights, noting the bulbs, and how they seemed just too different, too soft, too comforting to be a different setting of the bulbs I’d seen. And little paranoic details - the cart, the switches, and the handles on the doors.
I can’t say if it was minutes, or a few hours, before I tried again to force the door open. Time had a funny inconsistency in here. At Vassar, we would study sometimes in the basement levels of the dormitory, and would joke that it was always midnight: always midnight in the quiet, in the lack of motion, in the total isolation, in the weird, airborne hostility the room possessed to anything outside.
This time the door flew open, and I crossed the darkened carpet (was it softer? was the pattern still the same?) into the silent library. The air seemed taut, and every minute sound of my feet seemed like an affront - a violation to the endless quiet.
Yes, I found myself thinking, quite distantly. The room is different. You’re not going insane. You are, perhaps, going somewhere, but not insane. Father Toselli isn’t here. Father Toselli won’t be here for two more years.
The sound of movement from somewhere beyond me made my stomach feel sick and hard within me. Oh, that something, I realized, with a calm but insane clarity I would have easily dismissed a short while earlier. That certain something is coming. It lives here. And not here as in here - here as in WHEN.
And WHEN -
WHEN is a moment, I think. An uncanny moment on a winter night, in 1962, when the sharp qualities of air and light and shadow hit just right, and time itself solidifies like a hard stone. The gold lights, and the quiet, and the utter power of it all - the utter isolation of it all - carve out a tiny cave in time. A cave that, for some entity that found it, turned into a solitude. A solitude, that in the course of time, became a den.
I wonder if they’ll call it an untimely death, when - if - I do appear, eventually, outside the cave. Un-timely death, I think. The air sharpens and bends, as if delighting in my cleverness. I hear the sound of an approach and feel its gladness as the gladness of a teacher with a pupil who has just mastered a lesson. Lesson learned: this WHEN was never meant for me. This WHEN was never meant for two. This WHEN is not a home. This WHEN is WHEN itself's.
And I know something very few have ever known.