5. Cocktails and conspiracy
This post is part of an interactive serial fiction experiment called “A March Story.” Reader contributions are marked as links. The questions between the sections are your opportunity to drive the story; click those to send me ideas. To learn more, read the Introduction. To tell me what you think or get involved, tweet me.
I’m meeting Freeman Bellecourt in a bar called Tarbell in the East Village. I’ve tweeted a picture of the intersection. Freeman’s email, which he signed “Josiah,” was as vague as our first chat, but he was insistent that I meet him tonight. Meet a suspected radical alone in a bar? Sure, why not?
Tarbell offers “cocktails and conspiracy,” and there is even a “secret scheming room,” though it is covered in signs indicating that it is bugged by shadowy “g-men.” I spot the keffiyeh up on the mezzanine, above the bar. Josiah née Freeman is hunched over a drink up there in the shadows. I recognize his companion from the meeting, a young man with thick glasses who is now drumming his thumb on the table at a rapid pace.
“Freeman,” I greet him.
“It’s Freeman in the meetings. At the bar, it’s Josiah.”
Across the table, the thumb-drummer looks intently at the tabletop and says “Joooooes.”
“That’s Clyde,” Josiah says. I give a little half wave, but Clyde doesn’t look up.
“I am Clyde and Clyde is hungry,” Clyde responds. He looks over the edge of the mezzanine down at a patron sitting at the bar. “Look at that one, sitting at the counter, with debris of raw meat tangled in his salt and pepper beard, like a man living in a cave.” He slaps a hand down on the table in front of us and says, “These milquetoast libations will not suffice. Clyde must eat!”
“That’s Clyde,” Josiah says again, watching his friend dance away to the stairs. “We’re old friends.” I take a long look at his face. His eyes look tired, like sleep has been eluding him for weeks. His stubble agrees. He is nursing a small glass of whiskey with two ice cubes in it.
A waitress walks by and I order a hot toddy. Josiah’s not very talkative for someone who dragged me out at eleven o’ clock at night, so I prod him. “Why am I here, Freeman, Josiah, whatever it is?”
“I was born Josiah. Freeman is a nom de guerre.” He’s speaking quietly, and I have to lean in to better hear him. “So’s Bellecourt — borrowed from one of the founders of the American Indian Movement. My last name is Steinberg-Reynolds.”
“The woman at the meeting…”
“They’re my parents. They founded the Free Air Society.” He knocks back the last two sips of whiskey before him and signals for another. “You’re here because I want to set the record straight. No matter what happens in the next couple of days, I want you to share the truth.” He’s speaking to the empty space in front of him, but now he turns to me, and locks those eyes onto mine. “How long does it take you to get a story into the paper?” he asks.
“I’m an intern, so probably another three or four years.”
“I don’t break big news, Josiah. I’m just an intern. You’re better off posting it yourself on Medium.”
“Trust me. They’ll print this. It’s bigger than Barkevious Mingo in the NFL draft. How long does it take to get a story to print?”
“We can turn a story in a few hours. Less than a day. It’s probably too late to hit the deadline tonight, though.”
“That’s what I thought.”
I pull my phone out and open the recorder app. “Do you mind if I start recording?” I ask.
His face darkens. “This is all off the record.”
“You just said you want to set the record straight.”
He looks around as if there’s an answer somewhere in the bar. “Right. Fine. Record. That’s fine.”
I press record and for sixty long seconds I am just capturing the ambient noise of the bar. Josiah sits there. Clyde is downstairs chatting to someone. “Tell me about the Free Air Society?” I try.
He takes a deep breath and dives in. “My parents met at university in Wales. They were both doctoral students. This was during the time the Dome was being built and people all across the world saw it as an affront — either to the environment or to race or class. And there was the question of Domes in other cities after New York. A London Dome? A Paris Dome?
“My parents and some friends founded the Free Air Society and decided they needed a local issue to galvanize support. It started with complaints about the terrible air-conditioning in their building. They organized a few protests, pissed off the administration, but nothing changed. So they released ferrets into the vents as a publicity stunt. They knew the exterminators would just advise removing the whole system. Unfortunately the animal rights groups on campus hated it…”
“I found Chekov’s gun!” exclaims Clyde, who returns with a bottle of vodka shaped like a pistol. He cradles it like a delicate gift.
Josiah continues: “They came to the States to fight the Dome in person. And they had me. And we’ve been in the city ever since. I’ve lived inside of the Manhattan Dome my whole life. I’ve never left it.”
“Not even to go to Brooklyn for a little fresh air?”
I’m half-joking, but he shakes his head. “No matter how many of my friends move out there, no. When I was kid it was my parents’ thing: the boy who lived in a bubble. As a teenager, it was an obnoxious point of pride. But I’ve stayed the whole time — went to NYU, got my own place in the East Village. And I started running the Free Air Society. My parents are luddites — they couldn’t understand the digital age — and they started to lose the passion for the fight. The city got better at helping people than we were.”
A waitress comes with an array of plates and bowls for Clyde, who unearths a spoon from a napkin roll and digs in to a bowl of cereal. “Who knew that Fruity Pebbles would be a viable replacement to carbon based fuel?" he asks.
“Is he all right?” I finally ask Josiah with a quizzical look.
“Clyde expects to be in Riker’s Island or Guantanamo by next week.” He takes another sip of whiskey. “We both do.”
Clyde is on to the next bowl and raises his spoon to make a point. “Many times I've found myself wondering why Brussels sprouts are green, when in fact they taste brown.”
“Clyde’s been holding on to two eighths of mushrooms and tonight he ate them all. He’s in a space-worthy mindset.” Josiah turns to Clyde and says loudly, “Just remember buddy, if you end up in the hospital, you’re confused from the rhabdomyolysis.” He turns back to me with a wince. “It’s his last hurrah. ”
Clyde is sawing into what looks like the rabbit. “After several rounds of deer antler velvet injections, the Leprechaun's dream of becoming the Easter Bunny was over,” he says to himself. “Large furry mammals work best with barbers named Larry. The small ones work best with a red wine sauce.”
“Last hurrah?” I ask. “What are you planning?”
“We’re going to blow up the Dome.”
Josiah has outlined for me the structural weaknesses of the Dome above our heads. The pattern of debris he expects to rain upon the city. The exhortation for New Yorkers to remain indoors that I am supposed to print. I have sat here in quiet shock, mostly disbelieving he is capable of it, fearfully wondering if he is a crazy person, wanting to pick up my phone and start making calls. I have finished my hot toddy and ordered a double whiskey in quick succession.
Clyde has continued to eat and mutter, occasionally adding to Josiah’s narrative with statements like “The whole plan has been put out of misery like a vestigal magic.”
“This is an attack on the city,” I say. Then remembering my place here, I add, “That’s what your critics would say.”
Josiah smirks. “That’s what you would say.”
“Okay fine, it is.”
“You love this city, love your country. You can’t bear to see anything that’s wrong with it.”
“Right,” I say sarcastically, “I’ve wanted nothing more than to be a good American housewife since I was a little girl, right up until my quiet humiliation at the Free Air Society meeting. It was then that I became self-conscious of the Calvin cooking eggs for a gun-toting eagle tattoo I got in college.” The whiskey and my nerves are becoming a combustible mix.
Josiah raises his hands in defense. “Look, it was the subtext of what you were saying…”
“Subtext? That’s text! You’re attacking New York City!”
He sighs and speaks slowly, monotonously, like he’s arguing with a child. “I believe I’m setting New York City free. A society in which the very is controlled by its state is a society that cannot breathe freely…”
“Come on, that’s a Chomskyan invention if I’ve ever heard one.”
“I believe it. I truly do.” He looks down at his hands. “We can do this thing so that no one is hurt. The Dome should break into small pieces, not big enough to kill anyone. But that’s only if the initial fractures in the glass occur at the right locations. Which makes it better that we do it before it falls on its own.”
“What do you mean?”
“The Dome is falling apart. The mayor knows it.” He points a finger upward. “That story about the kid who saw the snowflake? It’s true. I met the kid. He lives in Murray Hill. There’s a big crack in the Dome right above his apartment.”
“Why was the mayor’s man at your meeting?”
“To tell us to blow up the Dome.” I laugh, but he wasn’t joking. “Bloomberg’s known the Dome since he took office. He was just hoping the Dome would fall on the next mayor’s watch. No such luck. So he sent Nate. Said we could all accomplish the same goal — the Free Air Society is finally victorious, he gets to pin the blame on some radicals.”
“Raw deal for you.”
“Ridding the city of the Dome is the only thing I’ve ever believed in.”
“But now you’re interested in your legacy.”
“Aren’t we all?”
I knock back my whiskey and somehow there’s already another one in front of me. “I’m going to report this to the cops, you know?”
“Yes, it’s all part of the plan.”
“And they’ll probably stop you.”
“Unlikely. We’ve spent a lot of time planning for this. Tomorrow it begins.”
“It must be the work of the planets. The alignments must be read,” Clyde adds, sagely.
I sip my beer and wonder how to track down Harold Simmons’s home telephone number. I have a lot of phone calls to make. And a lot of writing to do.
Josiah is reciting to himself: “He wasn't sure of the final touch; painful thoughts. She, sang: ‘Honey, you don't know where my yesterdays brooch?’” He smiles at me, blue eyes like wells of tears. “An old poem I love.” And then I’m pretty sure he tried to kiss me.
I hope you enjoyed the fifth episode of A March Story. This is the final week of the project, and the next two episodes are coming fast. So fast, in fact, that the final episode will be written live in a Google Doc!
Have ideas you want to see in the last two episodes? Have a word or sentence you want me to include? Tweet me with the hashtag #marchstory.