A True Tale of Innocence from Before 9-11
Sometimes an event occurs that seems as if it could only have happened to someone else. The surreal aspect of the event softens the impact during the experience, but only adds to the bewilderment afterwards. For me, that event occurred in December 1998, about 13 weeks into my stint at an editing job for a Tallahassee, Florida, computer consulting company…
It begins with the arrival at my workplace, one cold day, of two detectives. They are both over six feet tall and wear dark suits, guns strapped demurely to their belts. The receptionist calls me up to the front of the building. The detectives introduce themselves and ask if they can speak to me in private. I have yet to realize that the surreal event has begun to occur.
I guide them into a conference room, we sit down, and they immediately begin to ask what I think of as very odd questions.
“Mr. VanderMeer, have you ever been to California?”
“Mr. VanderMeer, have you ever sent any packages to California?”
Have I ever sent packages to California? It may be statistically anomalous and yet still true that almost every writer who lives in the United States has at one time or another sent some kind of package to California. I tell them, yes, I have mailed packages to California.
By this time I am beginning to sweat and to stutter a little, because by my nature I tend to feel guilty even if I am accused of something I didn’t do, or even if accused of something harmless I did do, like sending packages to California.
At this point the detectives turn up the heat.
“Have you ever sent a package to XYZ,” one of them asks, naming my former place of employment.
I think back to my lovely time at XYZ. Working at XYZ had been like having a bit part in a theatrical production of Lord of the Flies recast to include business managers. While there I had ducked flying projectiles and hastily thrown verbal assaults. An employee once stole the football pool money and fled to Kansas City. Another employee had tried to rob a bank using nunchucks, and, failing, went to jail, but was not immediately fired. Once, someone had been so angry at someone else that, while using the urinal, they had punched a big hole in the cardboard walls of the men’s bathroom. The hole was never fixed, but remained there, month after month, as a reminder (to the male employees, at least) of the bottled up rage that might someday consume the place. An ex-Admiral had been brought in as a manager to restore order and dignity to XYZ, but even by the time I had resigned, nothing much had come of it.
But have I ever sent a package to XYZ? I concentrate all of my rapidly evaporating memory on the question. Finally, I say no, I don’t recall sending anything to XYZ. I want nothing more than to forget I had ever encountered XYZ.
That’s when they ask me if I am in the habit of sending bombs to my former employers.
Suddenly, I remember, a coldness rising in my stomach. Suddenly, I know, with obscene clarity, what they are talking about. They are talking about the damned pellet. I had picked up a number of novelty “message pellets”—basically, a metal capsule with a curled up piece of paper inside—at a store in Atlanta. Friends said it looked like the kind of thing a carrier pigeon might use. I had sent one to my ex-Admiral ex-boss on a lark several weeks before. Why had it just arrived now? I would never know.
So I ask the two detectives, “Is it a little metal pellet you’re talking about?”
One of them looks at the other, as if they’ve just broken the case, which, in a way, they have. “Yes,” they say, and suddenly everything comes into focus. They tell me that my ex-boss, the ex-Admiral, used to be in a Middle East bomb unit. When he got my friendly little pellet package, he called the bomb squad. Since I had scrawled my shorter post office box address on the outside, rather than my street address, and neglected to write my name, he had no idea who had sent the package to him.
Presumably adorned in bomb-resistant gear, a bomb squad unit had quietly stormed XYZ’s premises, reverently placed the package in a secure metal box, and then carried it out to the bomb unit vehicles, before whisking it away to the county sheriff’s department. Three bomb squad units had then spent the whole afternoon tracking me down.
Whereupon the detectives, tipped off by my post office box address, swooped down on my office and found me...and started asking me questions about California. (Someone had been sending letter bombs to addresses in California.)
The detectives do not tell me all of this at once, so for several minutes I think that the ex-Admiral did know who it had come from, and that was why he had called the bomb squad. By this time, I am suffering from an onslaught of anger, coupled by profuse sweating, all of which I know makes me look guilty as hell.
The best news is that they haven’t opened the message pellet. It’s still at the sheriff’s office, waiting to be “defused.”
Trying not to panic, I desperately attempt to convey the impression that I’m innocent of any wrong-doing, but some reptilian part of my brain equates the presence of the two detectives with guilt. Somehow, some way, I must be guilty of something, or they wouldn’t be sitting here talking to me. After some rather incoherent explanations, I think I am able to convince them I’m innocent. But I’ve still got to follow the detectives down to the sheriff’s department to give a statement.
First, though, I have to explain to my supervisor what’s going on. I step into his office while the detectives politely wait by the front door, and I deliver a speech that ends something like this: “So they think I bombed my former employer, and I’ve got to go down there to answer some questions.” My boss, who just conducted my three-month review two days earlier, gives me a look as if he’s unsure he made the right decision when he hired me. (I had already, unbeknownst to him, lied during the job interview. When I said I was a writer, he looked up from his notepad and said with a grin, “I hope you’re not one of those writers whose books have black-and-white covers and at the end someone’s head winds up on a shelf.” No, I said, I was not that kind of writer, even though he had just perfectly summarized my latest novel.)
“Well, try not to be too long,” my supervisor says, before returning to his work.
As I walk out into the lobby with the detectives, a crowd of co-workers gathers, all curious, to whom I only have time to say, "it’s just a misunderstanding—not even that, much more comical than that..." while the owner of the company leans against the door of his office trying to figure out why the cops are taking away one of his employees. As I pass the receptionist, she says something cheery, like, “This is so cool.”
Twenty minutes of driving across town through the beginning of rush hour traffic and the real fun begins: we reach the sheriff’s department. They take me up to the third floor and sit me down just outside of the room with the table, the little chairs, and the big two-way glass mirror. The implication seems to be, give us any trouble and you’ll soon be in there…
The detective asks me more questions.
"How many capsules have you sent out, sir?"
"About 20. Maybe 25."
"Which is it? 20 or 25?"
In the background, another detective, identifiable by his grizzled chops, mutters audibly, "Christ! 23 pellets! We’re gonna have 23 bomb threats on our hands.
"No. Not in Tallahassee. All over the country. In fact, a writer I correspond with just showed a pellet of mine to a couple of editors in New York. Which is kind of funny, since they had kind of the opposite reaction to what you…"
Here I trail off because no one else seems to think it is funny ha ha or even funny ironic...
"Where did you get the capsules?"
"In Atlanta, Georgia. In a novelty store."
"What kind of novelty store? Do they sell firearms?"
"No. It’s a coffee shop. It sells some neat novelty items—they advertised these pellets as message capsules."
The grizzled detective says, loudly, "I thought for sure it was a carrier pigeon capsule."
"Do you know the name of the store?"
"No. But I think my girlfriend might remember it."
"Can you call her?"
"Yes. She’s home sick, but I can call her."
"Okay. I’ll call her."
I call my girlfriend (now my long-suffering wife...)
"Ann, hi. Do you remember the name of that store where I bought the pellets? Some people here need to know."
Ann: "No, I don’t remember. But I know it’s here somewhere—can you get it when you come home?"
Me: "Um, well, it’s kind of important to get it now."
Ann: "It can’t wait?"
Me: "No, actually. Because I’m standing here in the sheriff’s office and they would like to know where I got the pellet because someone thought it was a bomb and so they’ve brought me in to make a statement about the pellet, so I kind of need to know soon where I got the pellets!"
Ann: "Oh. You’re in the sheriff’s office? What are you doing in the sheriff’s office? A bomb? Are you kidding?"
Me: "No. No joke. They think the pellet is a bomb."
The first detective gives me a look like, No, we never thought it was a bomb—why are you telling her that?
But she can’t find the name, so I agree to call them later with that information.
At this point, another detective comes over. This joker is slowly putting on surgical gloves as he approaches, with a great thwacking of latex. He’s got an enormous oiled mustache like Salvador Dali and he has more wrinkles than the actor Lance Hendrickson. I’m just a little bit worried that this guy thinks I’ve hidden more capsules in and around my person and wants to take a look...but no: he’s getting ready to defuse my pellet and he wants some reassurance from me.
Him: "Listen, son, is there anything you need to tell me about that capsule before I open it."
Me: "No. It’s just a message capsule. It has a piece of paper inside of it. With a message written on it."
Him: "What’s in the capsule?"
Me: "A message to my former boss. Saying hello, kind of."
Him: "You’re sure it’s not a bomb, son. I’m about to go in there and open it up. I don’t want any surprises."
Me: "No, really. It’s just a message capsule. It’s not a bomb…Of course..." (this was a stupid thing to say in this context—“Of course…” followed by a thoughtful pause—and I’ve made a mental note of that for future reference)
Him: "Of course what?"
Me: "Well, you haven’t let me see the package, so I couldn’t tell you for sure that it’s what I sent to my former boss."
Him: "It has your address on it."
Me: "Okay, then I guess it’s what I sent to my former boss. "
He leaves, along with three other detectives. I’m wondering what the hell he thinks the surgical gloves are going to protect him from if it is a bomb. Later, I realize they wanted to preserve fingerprints. Luckily, I keep my mouth shut.
Out of my field of vision, the detectives enter the room that contains the pellet. There is, literally, an amazing silence. Even the detectives who are not in the room kind of hold their breath.
Then, about a minute later, I hear what sounds like a faint roar of laughter, possibly hysteria-based, which then abruptly cuts off. A minute after that, the first detective is back, holding my pellet with the message. He reads the message aloud for the benefit of the second detective: "Hello, [my former boss]—I hope the holidays are treating you well. Isn’t this a neat capsule? Keep in touch."
The suspense drains right out of the room and into the chilly afternoon outside the huge windows. It’s funny that the suspense drained then, but I guess they were still thinking something was not quite right, that I was some disgruntled employee, and they expected the message to read: "Hello, Dick—I hope your pets are all dead. Kick yourself in the ass for me. Isn’t this a neat capsule? Stay the hell out of my life."
So after that I talk to the first detective for awhile about how all the cop shows are laughable in terms of accuracy. The first detective says he’s getting out of the homicide unit because it’s making him lose most of his hair. I don’t point out that he’s completely bald. Another detective admires the workmanship of the pellet, saying, "This has gotta be mass produced. Machine-driven. Nice piece of work." A third detective pokes his head in and says, "Hey, so I guess there was no anthrax inside, right?"
By now, I’m completely exhausted. It’s not so much that it has been a horrifying experience—I’m still too shocked to be horrified—but it has been a surprising experience, and the adrenaline rush has wiped me out. So I’m escorted down to the outer rooms and sent on my way, the detective’s business card in my pocket so I can call him with the name of where I bought the @#$%!! pellets. (Later, when I get home, I sit in a chair and laugh for about half an hour, but it’s not a pleasant laughter.)
Shaky and looking at the world through rather more cynical eyes than before, I go back to the office, even though it’s after work hours, if for no other reason than to do damage control. I figure a lot of damage control will be needed if I’m to salvage my current job.
But I soon realize everything is going to be okay. I walk into my office to find that my co-workers have fashioned tin foil handcuffs for every single piece in my decorative collection of ceramic, metal, and wooden frogs. Further, a business card from a mental health recovery institute is taped to my computer monitor. Oddly, for the first time all afternoon everything feels normal.
On my computer, I find email from a couple of XYZ employees who had apparently just heard that VanderMeer might have tried to bomb his old company...And at that point, I just start laughing, quite as hysterically as the detectives had a half hour earlier... Meanwhile, somewhere out there in the dark, a somewhat paranoid ex-Admiral is being debriefed by a detective who hates cop shows. And the last of my pellets is winging its way by FedEx, by US mail, by land and by sea, to the last of my friends who might appreciate it.
Luckily, my boss and the owner at my new job both got a big laugh out of the story and my reputation at work seemed oddly enhanced by my encounter with the law. Meanwhile, my former boss emailed me more than once apologizing profusely for the incident, no doubt afraid of a lawsuit. A friend of mine told me the bomb squad detectives had kept the capsule as a souvenir for what had turned out to be a hilarious episode for them—some of their last questions apparently being tongue-in-cheek.
And that was that. This was 1998, not late 2001. In a different context, at a different time, in another country even, I might have been led away to prison rather than let off with a nonchalant warning to refrain from pellet-sending.
That lesson I did learn. When I needed to communicate with my ex-boss one last time a year later, I used a regular letter in a regular envelope. I did not include a message pellet. I drew peace signs and flowers on the outside of the envelope. I wrote “NOTHING BAD” and “HARMONY” and “THINK HAPPY THOUGHTS” on it with a thick pen. The ex-admiral never responded, but neither did he call the bomb squad.