As it turns out, the almost comically fictional “underground” group that A. warned me about turned out to be real in all the worst possible ways. I saw remnants of it for myself in the basement of the Burrowes building at Penn State in 1992, and if you’ve ever smelled the scent of the Other before, you can understand that I knew what I would find in that room before I took that fatal step across the threshold. Fatal, that’s too strong a word, or at least it’s too final, for that step has not yet been fatal to me. Back then, everything seemed to be a prediction waiting to come true. I had been in love, and had married the very person whom I loved, and felt so immensely fortunate that I was sure (like only an egomaniac can be) that the universe would one day take notice of this spot of happiness and crush it. In 1996, the year after my wife and I left Penn State, one of her former students in math at what was then called the Alternative Program in State College took a rifle to campus on a sunny morning, laid down on her stomach, and began shooting people at random, killing one. It was as if we had escaped just in time.
The Burrowes building basement, this is where A., so it turns out, fled to after I chased her into the park, although chased makes what happened sound too dramatic. She ran, and I followed her. She only looked back once as she ran, and on her face I thought I detected a smile. The incident in the basement which I was witness to, this happened on a very hot day in August 1992; I remember this because the green leaves of the campus trees—even the strong and old trees lining the broad walkways through the middle of campus—these leaves had curled inward, taking he shape of little green tubes, like cigarettes with nothing inside them. They would survive, I knew, and unfurl again miraculously when it cooled, and it reminded me of A., in her apartment with the blankets over the windows to keep the sun out, and how that might not have been an act of retreat or depression, but rather survival, as she waited (she, with her page-boy hair and small knees) for the pressing evil to pass. One item I forgot to mention when I described A.’s apartment in the last column—and it’s only an important detail in light of what happened in the basement of the Burrowes building—was a white sheet that she had hung across doorway into what I suspect was a narrow hallway.
“Something terrible is happening in the basement.” What sort of person would say that? And yet as I stood there, the sheet gently and rhythmically bulging and retreating like the rising and falling of a breathing chest, A.’s words were like a taunt, a playground taunt, and for a moment the most ominous feeling came over me. I imagined that the only way to get beyond the sheet and into the hallway was to burn it, was to kneel down and light the sheet afire, which is strange because that is exactly David Lynch did in his remarkable Lumière-inspired 50-plus seconds film “Premonitions Following an Evil Deed,” which was made with a restored Lumière camera, with no post-filming editing. And so to make edits in camera, Lynch burned a sheet to lead us into the next scene, which was behind the sheet.
What I want to say is that what happened after I followed A. into the basement of Burrowes was like standing directly in front of a burning sheet that led from one scene into another. Of course I realize now that I never should have gone into that basement room, and perhaps I even knew that then; it’s hard to remember. The Burrowes building itself was utterly familiar to me. It was the home of the Graduate English Department, the place where the secret transactions between theory and practice happened. The light inside always seemed the same soft aquarium green. There had been rumors of the basement, a place where, so it was said, enormous computers generated code during he early years of the Cold War. The writer John Barth had taught and written there in the 1950s, and although no one we knew ever actually read the novel to verify it, it was said that he (with the Machines behind him and the cigarette in hand) set a few scenes from his 1966 novel Giles Goat-Boy in the basement of Burrowes. By the time I caught up with A. and spotted her darting into the building the end-of-the-day light was already spreading across the sky in red like blood slowly leaking though a bandage.
It turns out that the door to the basement was located in an abandoned bathroom (what gender it had been assigned to was indeterminate; the spot where urinals should have been was damaged), where I heard A. moving about. We were all still so heavily into Julia Kristeva at that point and her fascination with the abject that, standing just outside the restroom door, I expected a corpse to greet me on the other side as I gently pushed it open after minutes of silence. The restroom was empty. The static-y hum of the fluorescent lights, the dripping of water on the porcelain sink, this is what I remember most about that moment. If A. had been in there just a few seconds ago, there was no sign of her now. The door closed behind me and there I was, in that spaceless restroom, three stalls with old wooden doors to my right, and two stand-alone sinks to my left, and a plastic dispenser half-filled with pink soap. The floor was white tiles and the mirror above the sinks was just long enough that, from where I was standing, I could see into the middle stall, whose door was open.
The door to the basement was on the back wall of the stall, above the toilet. It was more of a large vent than a door, a vent whose grate had been removed and set carefully across the toilet seat, which, I soon discovered, had been placed there to stand on to lift oneself into the vent and descend the stairs into the cool basement, which was not as menacing a place as you might think. (And of course all of this is true in the same way that a Lynch film is true, which is to say it’s a version of a possible past.) The darkness seemed to seep into the basement from another place, just like it had in A.’s apartment. The basement was an enormous room with a series of partitions that stored old furniture, filing cabinets, bookshelves, wooden office chairs, obsolete typewriters, analog phones choked in their own cords, etc. The screams, distant and muffled, seemed to be coming from the farthest corner of the basement, where an orange light glowed and flickered like an EXIT sign. At the time I thought that these screams (and to this day I don’t know why I thought this) were not occurring in real time, but that they were being played back on a tape recorder. Perhaps my mind needed to think this in order to summon the courage to move forward toward the sound.
That wavering orange light, it dimly illuminated the entire basement just enough for me to find my way between and around the partitions and the wooden crates and the ropes on the floor to find my way slowly to the source of the screams which was, as I’ve said, in a room whose doorway was overhung by a white sheet. The screaming had stopped and the sheet, just as the one in A.’s apartment, gently billowed in and out, like the chest of a carefully breathing beast. The orange light was coming from the room itself, casting the sheet from behind with a glow that reminded me of a jack-o-lantern or what I imagined could be a distant city on fire. The notion to reach forward to pull back the sheet kept entering and fleeing my mind. I understood on some weird gene-memory level that touching the sheet would be akin to touching some highly radioactive object. There was no sign of A. I was alone in the basement. If there remained a world out there, outside of this black tar-pit trap building (and of course there was) it meant nothing to me anymore. Around the time that this all happened, in the early 90s, a phrase became popular underground. All your base are belong to us. This was spoken in the sort of off-hand, coded way among us late at night after many drinks. Even those of us who didn’t recognize its source used it, and standing in front of that sheet in the basement I felt as I was at the threshold of whomever “us” was at the end of that phrase.
I thought of A., and the fragility of her smile during the chase and of the absurdity of believing in half the things I believed in and of the absolute perfection of my wife as she ran alongside a chain link fence on a fierce winter day so many years ago, and of the words in the book of Isaiah to “Arise, Shine” and how all that meaning now was poured onto my head. So I lit the sheet afire. I crouched down, fumbled with my lighter, and the sheet disappeared in flames as if some prop on a magician’s stage. It was a transition, an edit, (as I would realize later watching the Lynch film) and the room behind the sheet was bare, except for a tipped over wooden chair tangled in binding rope and when I stepped inside the room I could smell the odor of a ruined human being and it was then that I understood that the implied speaker of the phrase all your base are belong to us was not them, but us. It was me, at this moment. I was the colonizer, having no natural right to set foot in this room (which was really a territory) and it was I who through my sick curiosity had followed A. where she should never have been followed and, years later, watching Lynch’s “Premonitions Following an Evil Deed” I understood that any depiction of the room would be like a Theodor De Bry etching, De Bry who never traveled to the Americas but whose engravings of the Native Americans, nonetheless, entered into the realm of historical fact.
The unbearable sadness of that tipped over chair. With both hands I gripped it and set it up right in some lame attempt to restore order. Did I understand that in doing so I had become an intruder of the highest order? I suppose I did, and yet I was still under the spell of Julia Kristeva, Michel Foucault, Tzvetan Todorov and the other alien theorists for whom there was no action that could not be explained in terms so deterministic that they made a complete lie out of the concept of free will. Todorov, especially, his name over-spilling with vowels and that lone and violent letter z. His book Conquest of America: The Question of the Other quoted heavily from The Devastation of the Indies: A Brief Account, published in 1552 by Bartolomé de Las Casas, which offered a first-hand account of the Spanish atrocities against the indigenous peoples of the Americas and the Caribbean:
As has been said, the Spaniards train their fierce dogs to attack, kill and tear to pieces the Indians. It is doubtful that anyone, whether Christian or not, has ever before heard of such a thing as this. The Spaniards keep alive their dogs’ appetite for human beings in this way. They have Indians brought to them in chains, then unleash the dogs. The Indians come meekly down the roads and are killed. And the Spaniards have butcher shops where the corpses of Indians are hung up, on display, and someone will come in and say, more or less, “Give me a quarter of that rascal hanging there, to feed my dogs until I can kill another one for them.” As if buying a quarter of a hog or other meat.
If I was the intruder here—in this room that A. had led me to in the basement of the Burrowes building—then whose territory was this, and how was righting the fallen chair an act (which I considered an act of love) more violent than the atrocities that had been borne upon the poor soul who had been strapped to that chair? By the time A. appeared in the doorway behind me, stepping over the remnants and ashes of the burnt sheet, I realized that the phrase All your base belong to us was no longer a sentence that I was outside of, but rather a sentence that I inhabited in some fatal way.
Of course, the solution to all this was obvious in that moment: the only way to make things right was to seat myself in that chair, and to wait for the terrible inevitable. I had placed the fallen-over chair back on its feet to prepare it for the next subject: me. And if it hadn’t been for A., at that moment (who I feared had fled me forever) putting her hand gently on my shoulder, and leading me back, out of the basement, then I really do think I would have given myself over to the strange territory of that room whose dull orange light, even to this very day I still see sometimes when I shut my eyes, glowing like both a warning and an invitation.