Before the fires and the kidnappings, before the murders, there were some minor disturbances. We scratched our heads about them, filed the paperwork, even laughed at some of them after work, about their strangeness. But we never thought that they might be related, much less that they were the beginning of something so awful. But hindsight is as useful as a dog licking its run-over legs.
Ira and Abe Gold played chess every Sunday on the banks of the Schuykill River off of Kelley Drive. They were quarrelsome brothers, retired deli owners, and they argued over the details of the incident, in the same way that they argued over their chess matches each weekend afternoon. Abe was especially angry because he claimed to have been winning before their chess pieces were dashed into the river. Ira disagreed. He asked us if we were familiar with “Cronenberg’s Trap,” and smiled when I said I wasn’t. He said, Abe wasn’t either.
What they did agree on was that two young men rushed their table, flipped their chessboard, and flung the brothers’ bishops and kings and whatnot into the river. Broad daylight. This was a crowded park. Then the men went down the steep bank, ran alongside Kelley Drive splashing in the shallows, and were gone. The only description they could give was that they were “blonde gentiles” and had black marks under their eyes like athletes use against the glare of the sun. Lots of the university teams practiced by the river; it wasn’t that odd of a detail.
The strangest thing about the incident was that both Gold brothers reported that the two young men were completely silent. There was no laughter from the vandals, no fun. And if not fun, then what was it? The whole incident was worthy of note, but not much else. Ira suggested it was a hate crime, but there was no evidence of that. Abe disparaged the youth of America in general terms, but we’ve heard that speech before and paid it no mind. Though, Abe may have been on to something this time; his grumpiness may have finally been right.
But the brothers weren’t hurt. The chess set cost ten dollars. Not much of crime at all.
Three separate mothers reported being approached by a young man smoking a cigarette while they were walking their infants in the park. In each case, the man smiled congenially, then leaned down toward the child, and blew a cloud of smoke into the mother’s baby carriage. Again, no laughter, and no threat. The man just jogged away. The women were rattled, of course, but it was hazy what crime had actually been committed. As an isolated incident, we might have chalked it up to over-protective motherhood and a rude smoker. But three reports? Regardless, the last thing I thought of was Abe and Ira Gold. The only connection was that both events happened on the weekend. Lots happen on the weekends.
Fireworks were set off in the lobby of Saint Mark’s Church during a Christening. No one was hurt; the baby would have cried anyway. The strange thing was no one even saw the colors. The parishioners just heard the bang, smelled the smoke seeping under the door from the lobby. But again, the point of it all was missing. It wasn’t a bomb. There wasn’t a message. It was mischief for its own sake.
A man took a hammer to the Liberty Bell, gave it two big gongs right in the middle of a tour, ran across Independence Mall, and was lost in the crowd.
Two men, one on each side of the field, threw extra baseballs out during a Phillies’ game. Our first and third basemen weren’t hurt badly, but play had to stop, and we lost, though we can barely blame that on those hoodlums. People get drunk at baseball games. People get crazy about local sports.
I wish I could say that I started to put these things together–had some sort of special file–but there were real murders and shoot-outs and drug deals and beat-up wives and even stolen cars in the city to deal with. While I’m sorry that Abe’s and Ira’s chess game got interrupted, I knew much worse things were happening, and had even happened to the Gold brothers themselves.
Two shirtless men described by witnesses as having “tiger stripes” painted across their backs jumped down onto the tracks in front of a commuter train in Market East Station during peak hours. A hundred and fifty witnesses on the platform. One pulled himself back onto the platform, and ran up the stairs to 11th St. The other disappeared down the tunnel. Metro cops never found him. The trains were two hours late the rest of the night. That’s about it.
The new playground at the corner of Verree and Strahle was burned to the ground in the middle of the night. The Fire Captain said only one match was lit, but the flame circled strategically, fed itself, ruined the see-saw, swing-set, sliding board, and then, “just put itself out.” The surrounding woods weren’t touched, as if the fire-starter only had a problem with the playground itself. Who hates playgrounds? It was a mess of smoldering colored plastic and aluminum the next morning, and smelled awful. The kids were a little disappointed at first, sure, but someone showed up with a basketball, and their mourning was over pretty quick. It’s been my experience that children have a unique capacity for either forgiveness or forgetfulness or some combination of the two. One of the kids told me he thought it was “cool” to see the playground “burned up.” At the time, I was relieved not to have to explain to the kid why someone might want to destroy his playground, but now his reaction frightens me a little.
LaSalle University’s crew team was harassed during practice by vandals tossing M-80’s and stink bombs into their boats from a small, renegade canoe. Their attackers laid a skull and crossbones flag to float in their wake, and paddled off towards the opposite bank, a difficult task given the current. No one was hurt. The crew agreed that the canoe “came out of nowhere.” The coxswain–a small nervous kid of eighteen, maybe a hundred and ten pounds–seemed particularly rattled, and insisted, “It came and went like a fucking ghost. I thought we were going to die. Their faces were painted like skulls.” The rest of the oarsmen laughed at him, though, as if he were prone to overreactions. It was, after all, just stink bombs, maybe some leftover Halloween make-up. The team went on to win the Stotesbury Classic that weekend, incidentally. There were no incidents at the race.
To be honest, these sorts of strange calls were almost a relief from the real grief of the job. It was amateur crime, bored crime. And they were good stories, harmless stories, over-some-coffee-and-donuts type stuff. Make the wife smile after she’s been worrying about you all day. We need these types of calls, otherwise we might think everyone had gone completely greedy and vicious in this cty. Sometimes a man murders his wife in front of his children with the remote control for the TV, but sometimes a man steals twenty balloons from a clown on the street and just lets them fly away into the blue.
Which brings me to the assault on the Hot Air Balloon Expo in Bucks County. This was Labor Day, seven months before the attacks on the schools. I say “assault” here, not so much because of the brutality of any of the acts in particular, but because on this day, there was a definite concentration of these “disturbances,” as I’ve been calling them–in a sense, our first clue that we should start connecting these random events. While the holidays always bring out the crazies in drunken, patriotic droves, there was something deliberate about that day that couldn’t be ignored even then.
First, a Ben Franklin impersonator was publicly embarrassed. These colonial re-enactors squeeze themselves into every event around the city, and I don’t blame them, though Franklin had zero to do with hot air balloons, historically speaking. He was just wandering around the crowd, smiling and waving, ringing a bell for whatever reason, when he made the mistake of using one of the port-a-potties provided for the event. Two kids wearing plastic Viking helmets and brandishing turkey legs knocked the compartment on its side while Ben Franklin was in it. He claims he was in there for three hours; no one noticed. He finally managed to roll the thing over himself, and was able to open the door and escape.
Two separate Amish families claimed that groups of young men bombarded their funnel cake tents with rock music and hip-hop, and put all their little dolls on display in sexual positions. A gun was flashed. One father had the straps of his overalls sliced with a knife and he lost his pants briefly. The attackers kissed the Amish women on the mouth. A girl went missing for an hour, then reappeared wearing make-up and with her dress cut short at the knees.
One enthusiast from Rhode Island was forced out of his balloon’s basket at knife-point (“Really,” he said, “it looked like a sharpened rock.”) by three young men with the same black stripes under their eyes. The balloon was later found crashed in a field outside of Trenton, NJ. The engine was missing and the fabric of the balloon was badly torn, but the owner said the basket appeared unharmed, which suggested a well-executed landing.
I wasn’t at the Hot Air Balloon Expo. I was in Ocean City, NJ with my family, eating saltwater taffy and caramel popcorn, enjoying the holiday, the end of summer. My family and I rented a boat to go fishing in the bay. The kids popped seaweed, and caught hermit crabs. My wife and I got a babysitter, and met our friends in Atlantic City. I won eight hundred bucks playing craps. Iris and I made love listening to the ocean, dirty as it was. My only concerns for my kids that weekend were things like jellyfish, sunburn, stomach aches. At night, they were so tired, they feel asleep in our arms as we carried them from the car to their beds. It had been a good summer, and school started the next week.
In terms of licking our wounds, we know now that all these little things were related, but my own son had to be kidnapped and his school burnt to the ground and me myself had to dodge a grown man shooting arrows at me until all the pieces fit together. When I think back now on those silly incidents, I imagine a third party present, watching. It accounts for the lack of fun, the lack of obvious purpose or motive. In my mind, there’s this shadowy figure, not only watching the Gold brothers’ game get ruined, and the scared young mothers racing out of the park with their carriages, and Phillies’ third baseman dodging balls thrown from the stands, but also watching me taking the report, and maybe even watching me laugh about it later. I don’t feel guilty, but I do feel foolish. They were practicing.
My son is beautiful, and I’m lucky to have him back. But he’s seen things he shouldn’t have, and still doesn’t talk much about them. I’m proud of him. And frightened. Just today, he surprised me out of the shadows in our living room, and wrapped his arm around my neck from behind, laughing.
Sean Ennis is a Philadelphia, PA native, now living in Water Valley, MS, where he teaches for the University of Mississippi and the Gotham Writers’ Workshop. His fiction has appeared in Tin House, The Greensboro Review, The Good Men Project, and the Best New American Voices anthology. His first book, Chase Us: Stories, was published by Little A/New Harvest in 2014. He’s currently on crutches.