Performed by Heather Wells
Written by Valdez/Caputo
From the album Sugar Rush
The first thing I see when I turn the corner onto Washington Square West is a fire engine pulled up on the sidewalk. The fire engine is on the sidewalk instead of in the street because there’s this booth selling tiger-print thongs for five dollars each—a bargain, actually, except that when you look closer, you can see that the thongs are trimmed with this black lace that looks as if it might be itchy if it gets, well, you-know-where—blocking the street.
The city hardly ever closes down Washington Square West, the street where Fischer Hall is located. But this particular Saturday, the neighborhood association must have called in a favor with a city councilman or something, since they managed to get that whole side of the park shut down in order to throw a street fair. You know the kind I mean: with the incense guys and the sock man and the cartoon portrait artists and the circus-clown wire-sculpture people?
The first time I went to a Manhattan street fair, I’d been around the same age as the kids I work with. Back then I’d been all “Ooooh, street fair! How fun!” I didn’t know then that you can get socks at Macy’s for even less than the sock man charges.
But the truth is, it turns out if you’ve been to one Manhattan street fair, you really have been to them all.
Nothing could have looked more out of place than a booth selling thongs in front of Fischer Hall. It just isn’t a thong kind of building. Towering majestically over Washington Square Park, it had been built of red bricks around 1850. I’d learned from some files I’d found in my desk on my first day at my new job that every five years, the city makes the college hire a company to come and drill out all the old mortar and replace it with new, so that Fischer Hall’s bricks don’t fall out and conk people on the head.
Which is a good idea, I guess. Except that in spite of the city’s efforts, things are always falling out of Fischer Hall and conking people on the head anyway. And I’m not talking about bricks. I’ve had reports of falling bottles, cans, clothing, books, CDs, vegetables, Good & Plentys, and once even a whole roasted chicken.
I’m telling you, when I walk by Fischer Hall, I always look up, just to be on the safe side.
Not today, however. Today my gaze is glued to the front door of the building. I’m trying to figure out how I’m going to get through it, considering the huge crowd—and New York City cop—in front of it. It looks as if, along with dozens of tourists who are milling around the street fair, about half the student population of the building is standing outside, waiting to be let back into the building. They have no idea what’s going on. I can tell from the questions they keep shouting to one another in an attempt to be heard over the pan flute music coming from another booth in front of the building, this one selling, um, cassettes of pan flute music:
“What’s going on?”
“I dunno. Is there a fire?”
“Someone prolly let their potpourri boil over again.”
“Naw, it was Jeff. He dropped his bhang again.”
“Jeff, you suck!”
“It wasn’t me this time, I swear!”
They couldn’t know there’d been a death in the building. If they’d known, they wouldn’t be joking about bhangs. I think.
Okay, I hope.
Then I spy a face I recognize, belonging to someone who DEFINITELY knows what’s going on. I can tell by her expression. She isn’t merely upset because the fire department won’t let her back in the building. She’s upset because she KNOWS.
“Heather!” Magda, seeing me in the crowd, flings a heavily manicured hand toward me. “Oh, Heather! Is terrible!”
Magda is standing there in her pink cafeteria smock and leopard-print leggings, shaking her frosted curls and taking long, nervous drags on the Virginia Slim she’s got tucked between her two-inch-long nails. Each nail bears a mini replica of the American flag. Because even though Magda goes back to her native Dominican Republic every chance she gets, she is still very patriotic about her adopted country, and expresses her affection for it through nail art.
That’s how I met her, actually. Almost four months ago, at the manicurist. That’s also how I heard about the job in the dorm (I mean, residence hall) in the first place. The last assistant director before me—Justine—had just gotten fired for embezzling seven thousand dollars from the building’s petty cash, a fact which had enraged Magda, the dorm—I mean, residence hall—cafeteria’s cashier.
“Can you believe it?” Magda had been complaining to anyone who would listen, as I was having my toes done in Hot Tamale Red—because, you know, even if the rest of your life is going down the toilet, like mine was back then, at least your toes can still look pretty.
Magda, a few tables away, had been having mini Statues of Liberty air-brushed onto her thumbnails, in honor of Memorial Day, and was waxing eloquent about Justine, my predecessor.
“She order twenty-seven ceramic heaters from Office Supply and give them to her friends as wedding presents!”
I still have no idea what a ceramic heater is, or why anyone would want one as a wedding gift. But when I’d heard someone had been fired from Magda’s place of work, where one of the job benefits—besides twenty vacation days a year and full health and dental—is free tuition, I’d jumped on the information.
I owe Magda a lot, actually. And not just because she helped me with the job thing, either (or because she lets me eat free in the caf anytime I want—which might be part of the reason why I’m no longer a size 8, except in vanity sizing), but because Magda’s become one of my best friends.
“Mag,” I say, sidling up to her. “Who is it? Who died?”
Because I can’t help worrying it’s someone I know, like one of the maintenance workers who are always so sweet about cleaning up spilled bodily fluids, even though it’s not in their job description. Or one of the student workers I’m supposed to supervise—supposed to being the operative words, since in the three months I’ve worked at Fischer Hall, only a handful of my student employees have ever actually done what I’ve told them to (a lot of them remain loyal to the sticky-fingered Justine).
And when any of them actually do what I ask, it’s only because it involves something like checking every single room after the previous residents have moved out and cleaning out whatever they’ve left behind, generally half-full bottles of Jägermeister.