Dust

 

a novel by

Billy Lee Harman


 

 

 

 

Dust

 

©2005

by

Billy Lee Harman

(All rights reserved.)

 

HI

www.hitrt.com

10 Leeds Street

Boston, MA 02127

 

Publisher

www.createspace.com

 

ISBN

978-1-484-89260-2


 

 

 

 

For Rosa Parks,

the hero of my time,

and for Rachel Corrie,

for the children.

 

          And now with a mighty dust, and an infinite sound of horns and tambours, which came filling the valley, the first army of the infidels made its appearance, horses neighing, and a thousand pennons flying in the air.

The Battle of Roncesvalle

Bulfinch’s Mythology

 

          And into whatsoever house ye enter, first say, Peace to this house.

Luke 10:5

 


 

 

Contents

Chapter 1

A Tale of Two Cities

Page 5

Chapter 2

To Kill A Mocking Bird

Page 21

Chapter 3

On the Beach

Page 37

Chapter 4

The Jungle

Page 53

Chapter 5

Dandelion Wine

Page 66

Chapter 6

Through the Looking Glass

Page 81

Chapter 7

Innocents Abroad

Page 95

Chapter 8

For Whom the Bell Tolls

Page 110

Chapter 9

Journey to the Center of the Earth

Page 125

Chapter 10

Pilgrim’s Progress

Page 140

Chapter 11

Remembrance of Times Past

Page 156

Chapter 12

The Time Machine

Page 170

Chapter 13

Brave New World

Page 184

Chapter 14

The Tin Drum

Page 199

Chapter 15

The Sound and the Fury

Page 214

Chapter 16

Vanity Fair

Page 229

Chapter 17

The Good Earth

Page 244

Chapter 18

Huckleberry Finn

Page 259

Chapter 19

Pride and Prejudice

Page 274

Chapter 20

From Here to Eternity

Page 290

Chapter 21

1984

Page 306

Chapter 22

The Trial

Page 324

Chapter 23

The Miserable

Page 341

Chapter 24

Catch 22

Page 356

Chapter 25

The Scarlet Letter

Page 373

Chapter 26

The Red Badge of Courage

Page 390

Chapter 27

Green Mansions

Page 412

Chapter 28

Lord of the Flies

Page 431

Chapter 29

The Fire Next Time

Page 448

Chapter 30

A Handful of Dust

Page 463

Epilogue

Discours de la methodé

Page 492

 


 


 

 

 

Chapter 1

A Tale of Two Cities

 

            Time was good then, with Theresa and Slavey and excellent Oliver.  Slavey and Oliver tacked those bottle-caps to their gymmies and danced, danced in the street.  Theresa, she sang in doorways.  Me, I just tagged along.  They let me.

            Rain or shine, we worked and played anywhere.  It’s funny how kids love rain, other folks complaining and telling them they don’t have enough sense to get in out of it.  Kids just get out there in it, get soaked with the thought of catching a cold just a vague curiosity.  The rain, however wild, lays a cool calm, helps things shine

            So time was good in New Orleans, with all that rain there.  It was good then, as it had been before, at other times in the centuries of that settlement.  It was wild and free and sad and it all shined in hearts, hearts like excellent Oliver’s and Slavey’s and Theresa’s and mine.  Sometimes we didn’t know what to do, in all that rain.

            We lived in the projects, in the one where Storyville used to be.  But that’s not as bad as it may sound, that being then and this being now.  Storyville was gone, little left of it anywhere, except in history and minds like Oliver’s Earth father’s, remembering the Storyville days when King Oliver’s trumpet lorded over even the child Satchmo.

And the projects were new then, no crack-heads yet pillaging the plumbing for scrap metal to sell.  Satchmo, Louis Armstrong, the Dixieland trumpeter, named maybe for a French king, maybe for the sun king Louis XIV who gave this world ballet, or maybe for the crusader king Louis IX for whom the cathedral in New Orleans is named, maybe trumpeted best why we were here and how Storyville might never end, as an introduction to a recording of his of a song about “What a Wonderful World” Earth is.

“It ain’t the world that’s so bad,” said Satchmo.  “It’s what we’re doing to it.”

Huey Long, governor of Louisiana, calling himself the king fish, built the projects as a democratic project of his Democrat political party, and he built Charity hospital also for the poor of New Orleans.  Later, whatever the initial spirit, the projects and the hospital would be left to go to hell in a hand basket.  But, then, in our Louisiana childhood, the projects were new, and full of hope.  Economic equality seemed dawning, evening up everyone with us poor.  Maybe to bring us into the fold.

And, of course, we didn’t see ourselves as poor, as hardly any child thinks he or she is poor, all children finding themselves the centers of their lives, in the middle of all classes.  And, by God, we were in fact middle-class, in the middle of New Orleans, in the middle of America, in the middle of history, unfolding around us.  We sang and danced in our chains in the middle of America’s music.  And we were on our way to Motown, upstream from downriver.  The music carried us like wind and rain.

 

            We had come far.  We travel the universe doing what we can do on planets and in other kinds of places where things are headed toward hell in a hand-basket.  We had been to Earth several times, I as Lao-tzu to try to bring peace to the Mongol warlords, Slavey as Muhammad to send faith in life to the Philistines, Oliver as Moses to bring the same to the children of Israel.  Theresa had been Joan of Arc, to do the same for the French, and of course did well.  It was she who chose to land in New Orleans this trip, having been la pucelle d’Orleans.  She was curious about the French of Tom Paine’s common sense.

            Slavey and Oliver also had French memories to test.  They had worked together as Orlando and Oliver with Charlemagne, trying to temper Slavey’s inspiration of the Saracens against the followers of Joshua.  Slavey and Oliver were always getting killed, and they always did well.  Theresa didn’t like dying, and she did well.

            So we were a diverse group, come to try again to bring peace to this diverse world.  And the song Theresa most liked to sing in those doorways, as the tourists of the French Quarter threw coins into a beer-box at her feet, was “Amazing Grace”.  And she loves also how it sounds on the pipes, having also been a friend to Scotland’s Catholic queen Mary, never queen of England, never at peace, ever England.  Theresa knows the songs of peace and the pipes of war, as Slavey and Oliver know they acquired their tap-dancing skills marching, to Roncesvalles, to death.

            Now they knew they had some maybe-more-serious singing-and-dancing to do, and they knew that New Orleans was the rainiest city in the United States of America.  We were here now for a hundred-years-war more brutal than the one Theresa had ended in France, and so we all thought it appropriate to launch our current crusade in this French-founded rainy city.  But, democratic, we discussed the selection.

            “Seattle’s world-fair space-needle gets more rainy days,” offered Oliver.

            “But, in New Orleans,” argued Slavey, “when it rains, it pours.”

            “And here on Earth,” answered Theresa, “a hard, hard rain is about to fall.”

            When I showed Theresa the account I’ve given here one more millennium later, she pointed out the anachronism that Seattle built its space needle near the middle of this visit of ours, not before its beginning.  But time confuses me at times, over all the infinite millennia of our mission, but never tide.

And the tide seems the same now, this one millennium later, as it was then.  It seems to me that Katrina came but a moment after 9/11, while Enron and Anderson were in between, and we were gone again by then.  But a winner never quits, because a quitter never wins.  So, again, we were here.

Hitler was on the horizon, threatening to undo anything we had ever tried to do, and ending him would not give peace to all.  Racism was also rampant in this United States republic, and religious bigotry promised to respond to Hitler with more religious bigotry here where the Pilgrims had landed, and to spread it more to what human inhabitants here call the holy land.

So we agreed on New Orleans, a city built by oppression and freed by music, and used to rain.  If music could sooth the wild beasts, maybe it could calm the crazy humans who had invented it.  Theresa selected this city for the hope of our parents in the project.  We learned from them how to feel this time.  And we learned from the levee.

            “Don’t tell anyone,” Theresa whispered.

            “Tell anyone what?” I asked, looking sideways at her dark eyes gazing forward over the river, not focusing on the other side, as ours seldom did.

            “That we’re from outer space,” she answered.

            “Ah,” argued Oliver.  “You can tell them.”

            “Yeah,” agreed Slavey.  “Nobody cares.”

            “Yeah,” added Oliver.  “Nobody’d believe us, anyway.”

            “That’s why we can’t tell them,” Theresa answered.  “They’d lock us up in a loony bin, or try to!  Wouldn’t that narrow our focus?”

            Theresa always answers.  She always has the answers.  You should have heard her singing in those doorways.  You should have seen her.

            It wasn’t raining on this one day, but the grass on the levee was damp from dew as we sat there planning our invasion, the Sunday morning sun saying all its promises.  The irony was in that we knew we’d live forever.  One peace at a time.

            “I liked being Lao-tzu,” I said.  “You know, just going with the flow, letting things be right.  I think I’ll say that, when I accept the presidential nomination.

            “‘I’m a quiet man,’ I’ll say.  ‘A quiet man.’”

            “Yeah,” Theresa answered.  “But we have a lot of work to do before then.”

            “And somebody has to blow some horns,” added Oliver.

            “More than that,” offered Slavey.

            The river said nothing.  The levee held it back, as Theresa held us to the grindstone.  It’s a tough job, saving this world is, and we had to start now, by making some friends.  Racism was rampant in this republic, and Hitler was on the horizon.

We would need much help, many folks professing from the heart.

 

            And the first friend I made this landing was by accident, a fortuitous circumstance of my being whiter than my companions and so often away from them in day-to-day passings.  One afternoon, as I sat alone on the Moonwalk, named not for the moon but for a mayor of New Orleans, I met Tolstoi’s ghost.

            Yes, Tolstoi, Count Lev Tolstoi, the author of War and Peace.  You’ll have to forgive my spelling, if you’re accustomed to seeing the name spelled Leo Tolstoy.  I like to transliterate phonetically and was very happy when English-speaking Americans at last began calling the capital of China Beijing instead of Peking.  Maybe someday more of them will call my book the Dao De Jing instead of the Tao Te Ching.  It’s about using your voice more and your wind less.

            Lev was still walking on Earth instead of going to Heaven, because he was ashamed of himself.  Life and death are weird on Earth, even beyond the fact that Earth is the only place in the universe where death exists.  Lev had lived a long and wonderful life on Earth and died in a stupid way, trying to commit suicide without dying.  So now he was a ghost, dead but still hanging around on Earth.

            Like the author of the American Declaration of Independence, Lev had owned slaves, called serfs in Russia.  And, like that other author, Lev had written promoting the betterment of all human life.  But Lev’s thinking and writing wasn’t why Lev was a ghost.  Jefferson had done the same, and Jefferson wasn’t a ghost.

            Why?  Because he wasn’t like Lev!  Lev had not made his serfs an exception to his hopes of better life for all humankind.  Also unlike Jefferson, Lev not only had specified his human chattel as a special concern in his writings, but also had done positive deeds for them.  Among those deeds was building a school for the serfs particular to him on the land they worked for him.  So Lev was no hypocrite.

            Lev was a ghost because he had renounced the best of his life, his novels and his wife.  His book War and Peace, while being replete with confusion and contradictions like the Bible, stands similarly partly because of the contradictions as a gift to all life on this planet.  Besides being a Zen sort of thing, it offers negative examples like Moses’ stiff-necked people, and the hope of positive spirit, large heart.

            But worse than renouncing his novels was renouncing his wife.  No one paid much attention to his renouncing his writings, but his wife could hardly have paid little attention to his renouncing her.  For her, it had been love before sight, having first fallen in love with him on reading his first book, Childhood.  She had memorized much of it, and she met him when she was hardly more than a child.  So the 36-year-old man married the girl half his age.  A little like Andre and Natasha, in War and Peace.

            Then she bore him a baker’s dozen children, nearly half of them while he was writing War and Peace.  She loved him, and he loved her, and you can see it in how he writes of women, especially in the early pages of War and Peace.  He writes of them as glowing, and especially the little pregnant princess.  But somehow he forgot what he had seen.  He forgot how he had felt.  He forgot himself.

            He attributes little intellect to women in that book, and that might be the best reason to renounce it, if any reason is just.  But it is clear that he saw women’s beauty and clear that he loved his young wife, and it is clear that he dumped her when she’d reached the age at which United States women can retire.  And he dumped her not for another woman, but for his intellect, to be alive alone.

            “Until the day I die, she will be a stone around my neck,” he wrote in his late writings in despair of death, and so he died trying to leave her.  On that nonsense way, he fell sick of it and died, and so he found there is no death.  His wife died and went to Heaven, while he was hiding in New Orleans.  In shame of what he’d done, he didn’t even see her off.

            Her name was Sophia!  How more ironic can one get than to leave a woman named for wisdom to be alone with one’s own?  So here I was, sitting beside the ghost of Lev Tolstoi on a bench on the moonwalk, as the two of us watched the freight-ships passing in this great American port.  Surely none of those freighters carried more freight than Lev’s heart.

 

            “What brings you to New Orleans?” I had to ask.

            “Well,” answered Lev, “It’s a long story.”

            “A little, please?”  I needed to hear.

            “It’s history,” he answered.  “It’s the French.”

            “The French,” I wondered, and I begged him to go on, and I beg your indulgence to listen to this tirade before we go on to more mundane or less historic things that play better in films and books and news-media, stuff new as our friendship with Norma Jean and Lev’s meeting Billy the Kid, the assassinations of the Fits, etc.

“Look what they have done,” continued Lev.  “I guess I should start with Vallon-pont-d’Arc, with those graceful and gracious cave-paintings of horses, the earliest historical record of their joie de vivre.  But the mess started about thirty millennia later, when William the Conqueror stormed across what we strangely call the English channel to conquer even the language of the Anglos there then.  Such power, such spirit.”

Lev talked as he wrote, eloquently and prolifically, with little pause in thought.

“The spirit was so powerful that three centuries passed before the poetic power of Chaucer gained back a semblance of the old English language and moved it on to the language of Shakespeare.  Such power, such spirit!  But for what?

“It’s as though the conqueror had left his home behind to be conquered.  Three centuries before William conquered England, Charles Martel and his grandson Charlemagne had saved Europe from the Saracens, the invading Islamic hordes.  The older Charles had hammered them back from Tours, and the younger had given France its national poem by the spirit of Orlando and Oliver at Roncesvalles, and nearly made of the Roman Church the Church of France.  But, three centuries after the spirit of Guillaume le Conquerant, France needed a nineteen-year-old girl for protection from England.

“What happened?  I surely do not know!  But I know that France had even lost the spirit of its art.  Shakespeare showed the world that the confines of ancient drama Aristotle had pointed out shouldn’t be treated as rules, but French dramatists were treating them as rules three centuries after their faith-filled child warrior la pucelle d’Orleans had burned at the stake to give France back its spirit.  They call her now Sainte Jeanne, the patron saint of their nation.  But where’s her spirit?”

Of course, I considered telling the old dead count that I knew a reason he did not, why he should wish to be in N’Awlins now.  But I wanted to hear how he saw his own story, and he was well into it on that bench atop the levee.  He talked a little bowed, his grand old hands on his trousered knees beneath his long grey beard.  The water almost rippled from his glare, as he gazed into the river.

“Then there’s this nation,” he continued.

“Six centuries after William conquered England, the dance-master of the French sun-king Louis XIV did for dance what Shakespeare had done for drama.  Louis loved it, as he loved the art that went into his glittering palace with its glancing hall of mirrors and its glorious gardens, all aglow with some of the old spirit.  But his country hardly carried it forward.  We did better in Russia with his dance.

“Our great czar Peter, trying to imitate the glory he thought was Western Europe, earned Petrograd the nickname Window to the West, but there’s much irony in that title.  The sun-king’s dance-master’s name, the name of the inventor of the dance ballet, the dance more beautiful than any human motion except coitus, was Beauchamps. The name in French means beautiful fields, fields like the Elysian ones, les Champs Elysees.  “Champ” is also the source of the English word “champion”.

“And that conquering dance went far afield, becoming three more centuries later a champion of the third world war, the Cold War.  And that’s where I come in, I a precursor of communism, I a verbal revolutionary and champion of all the people, and especially the poor.  I died just before that revolution, the end of the czars and the brand of nobility that gave me my title Count.  So I did not live to see its failure, through failure in spirit of my own country.  And so I’m here.

“I did not live to see Stalin run Balanchine off to America’s freedom.  I did not see the dancers follow that choreography, Nureyev and the others, one after another.  No, I did not live to see communism sing its swan-song, but I did live to see that gift from France flourish through Petipa and Tchaichovski, through Swan Lake and the ghost Giselle, through the Sleeping Beauty.

“So, asleep in spirit or not, France has given greatly to this earth, and I haven’t mentioned now the greatest gift of her failure of spirit.  France gave the United States of America their revolution, their freedom.

“And I don’t mean Thomas Paine.  His common sense was about as common as Karl Marx’s, circular logic that would spiral into dirt if left to stand on Earth with no props.  Benjamin Franklin’s mission to the court of Louis XVI recruited a whole lot more from France than Paine and Lafayette.  The Marquis’ troops and other support cost the French treasury, and accordingly all the French people, dearly.  So, one of the greatest heroes of the American Revolution was Marie Antoinette.”

“That must be a good point,” I said to Lev.  “Explain it, please.”

I had heard all this before, but I wished to hear it from this ghost.

“It’s like the importance of my books I didn’t recognize,” he said, looking askance at me and then up at the sky and back down to the river and sighing.  “Marie had no notion of what she was doing.  When, in her callousness, she said the saying for which she’s most famous, she left her people to so much suffering and angered them so much by her saying it, that she inherited the revolution, against herself.

“‘Let them eat cake,’ she said, when the people of Paris marched to Versailles to demand the bread they lacked because their king and queen had chucked much more of their treasury across the Atlantic than the sun-king had spent on that palace.

“So, the revolution that began in America on the 4th of July 1776 began in France on the 14th of July thirteen years later.  Vive la France!

“Those people of Paris stormed the Bastille, the political prison that had oppressed them all, demanding and getting much more than bread.  So, in that weird way, France owed well the gift she gave to New York’s harbor.  The lady Liberty stands for both nations.  But France screwed up again.

“Napoleon, Robespierre, the reign of terror.  Many persons besides Marie Antoinette lost their heads at Robespierre’s guillotine, and Napoleon tried to conquer the world, taking everyone’s freedom.  What the French people thought they had won in their revolution, thousands of Russia’s people had to pay for, without gaining theirs.  The Pierre in my War and Peace is wrong at the start.”

“Pierre, named French for Peter, from the Latin word for stone, named for the saint who sank like a stone in the Sea of Galilee for lack of faith, the disciple who denied knowing his teacher three times before the dawn of his teacher’s crucifixion, the foundation on whom Jesus said his church would be built, the rock of the Roman Catholic church, stood in a drawing-room.  Educated in Western Europe, my child of adultery Pierre stood amid Russians speaking French, in a Petersburg drawing-room.

“I described him as candorless as he praised Bonaparte, while Bonaparte was doing all he could to subjugate all the world and then especially Russia, while Russians were dying to keep him from it.  When I said the cause of Napoleon’s imperialism was the first French corporal, I didn’t mean the Little Corporal, Napoleon.  I meant the first leader who followed Napoleon’s orders.  I meant the candorless sheep like Pierre.”

 “Is that why you renounced your work?” I asked.

“Not exactly,” Lev answered.  “It was from fear of death, exactly.  I looked at my characters and the real people around me, and I thought of all the noble notions I could figure, and none felt important to me, in thought of death.  I renounced my works because I could not feel that anything I knew or could do or think was important, in thought of death.  Rational or not, from fear of death, I feared all possibility of error.

“And no it is not rational.  Reason tells me that where is life can be no death, that where is beginning can be no end, that all is eternal.  But alone at night, alone although with Sophia beside me, I felt outside her gentle sleeping breath.  I felt that I would die for doing any wrong.  And I felt no right to do.  So I tried to undo all.  All I had done.”

“Dostoevski,” I said to him, “said that anyone would prefer to death life in an arshin of space.  I don’t know what an arshin is, but I don’t know death either.”

“I do,” said the count.  “And neither is much.”

“Lev,” I asked, “in any language, War and Peace is more than a thousand pages.  Can’t you say all that succinctly, for the simple souls that live on Earth?”

“No,” he answered.  “That’s why I renounced it.  Everyone must make choices.  In life, in war or peace, many ways exist to fight that fear.  You can have the peace of family and die a loved grandfather, or you can abandon yourself to death’s possibility by swinging your sword against everything in sight.  You can live and die by the ethics of a morality of yours or others, or you can live and die by refusing to make a choice.  You can call what you do religion or conscience or redemption or vengeance.  You can do anything you like, anything like you.  I can’t decide for anyone.  I just offered options.  You know yours.  In your heart.  They’re there.”

“So, I think,” I said, “you’re saying people should follow their hearts.  Does that mean that anyone who follows one’s heart is right, no matter what happens from it?”

“Yes.  I’m saying exactly that.  The whole trouble is that too few people follow their hearts.  Too many lie straight into themselves.  And they call it intelligence.”

And he went silent, lifting his old gray ghostly head and gazing no longer into the river, but across it.  The sun was setting behind us over the roofs of the French Quarter, and the saxophone-player at the entrance to the moonwalk seemed to me as silent as the river, although he still played as people quietly dropped coins and dollars into his saxophone-case on the boardwalk.  So I thought I understood the answer to my question of the count, but I wished to be sure.

“I beg your pardon, Count,” I said, in all the grandeur I could muster from my then nine-year-old human frame.  “But I’m still not exactly sure what brings you to New Orleans.  I’m not exactly sure.  Not exactly.”

“Oh,” said the author of War and Peace.  “I’m here for a little quiet, and I’m not through fighting yet, and I’m too old to join the French Foreign Legion.  I need to battle for my soul and be a little ordinary for a while, and I’m not alone in the battle here.  Marie Laveau still slips from her tomb in Saint Louis cemetery from time to time, you know.  And there are some vampires, although the werewolves usually stay by the bayous.  Besides, I like hanging out in the bars.  It isn’t all about the French.”

And he didn’t stay in New Orleans anyway.  He helped me out from time to time and was very helpful in my friendship with Mikhail Gorbachev and all that Cold War business, and he surprised me a little in being somewhat helpful in my friendship with Yasser Arafat and the craziness in Canaan.  Being a ghost, Lev traveled light, and he went wherever he thought he could help.

At the end of the century, after our last effort of that millennium on Earth, Theresa and I took him home for a visit.  He was very pleased to meet Saint Joan, and then we sent him on to Heaven.  To true Sophia, and their children.

 

            Yes, we had selected New Orleans as our launching point because of Theresa, for her having been Joan of Arc, the maid of Orleans.  But, for what we had to do, Theresa had to be born in the cotton south.  So her mother this trip gave berth to her in Alabama.

            Alabama had a culture of corruption.  It didn’t have the cotton culture of Mississippi or more western states.  But it had plenty enough hate and indignation to be the primary district of confederacy, as Washington had become the District of Columbia, if confederacy is a right word for bigotry.

            Theresa arrived ahead of the rest of us, because at the time we didn’t know the rest of us would be needed.  Theresa arrived just before what Earthlings came to call World War I, and not because of that slaughter but because of what was happening inside the United States of America, despite its official dedication to liberty and justice for all it had reaffirmed by its civil slaughter for emancipation a half-century earlier.

Hitler hadn’t yet reared his ugly head, and strife in Canaan then was more between England and France than between Israelites and Philistines, at least as far as most Earthlings could see.  Some of our space-personages might well have paid more attention, but the situation there then wasn’t very noisy, relatively.  It wasn’t nearly as noisy as when Joshua fought the battle of Jericho, or as the World Wars would make it.

The fight for Canaan that had been between the Israelites and the Philistines in the second millennium before Bob came to Earth was now mostly between those newer colonists and more diplomatic than warlike, with the economic health of Jews and Muslims mostly played as idealistic pawns in the struggle of those two failing empires for their own economic health.  The mandate that resulted was relative peace.

We had no notion of what Hitler was up to.  We couldn’t keep track of every little brat in the universe.  Since before papacy, European rivalries had always set situations for some little brat to rise up as a catalyst to capitalize on the disorder.  But the disorder disintegrated any efforts to predict which brat might find a place.  Racism, however, had much focus in America then.  So Theresa quickly found her place.

 

            She was born into this world that trip in the tiny Alabama town named Pine Level.  We thought it appropriate, the level of a pine being high, or low if hewn into a box.  Like Joan’s, Theresa’s body wouldn’t be boxed, but instead would be scattered to flow with a river, into the wide deep sea.  But pinecones were like something Bob had said when he was here:  “Except a corn of wheat fall to the earth and die, it remaineth alone.  But if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit.”

            And the people of Theresa’s little Methodist church in Pine Level understood that point of view and taught her to sing of it in Sunday school:  “Deep and wide, deep and wide.  There’s a fountain flowing deep and wide.”

            They sang from their church in their fight against the great white whale, as Ahab had railed from the rail of his ship, also with conspicuous despair:  “It’s a wide, wide world, and a deep unsounded sea.”

            But, in their acquiescence, they didn’t imagine names like Moby Dick, and they didn’t call the white whale great.

They called their nemesis the white-man, and they prayed for him as they prayed for themselves.

            Small words, simple souls, grand spirit.


 

 

 

Chapter 2

To Kill a Mockingbird

 

           Theresa loved the high open levels of the pines pointing to whence we came and would return.  But the trouble was deep and hardly sounded in Alabama, where Theresa’s infancy involved sleeping on the floor beside her Earth-mother’s father’s chair, as that grandfather slept with a shotgun in his lap.  Outside, white men in white sheets stormed by on horseback, on their way to hang anyone darker than they.

            The grandfather was whiter than many of the people who called themselves white.  Because his grandfather was white, he was so white that many white people who didn’t know him thought he was white when they saw him.  So sometimes he’d behave toward white people as though he were white and as good as they.  Of course he was better than most, with strength from sleeping with a shotgun.  But they knew none of that.

            One of the many strange things about Earth-people is that they seem to like making love to people they hate.  At least they call it making love, and it involves a lot more physical contact than shaking hands, which they often wouldn’t do with the same person.  Yet, most of the people who claim not to be racist would rail at the mention of the most obvious solution to the problem, love for all neighbors, whatsoever.

            “Would you want one to marry your sister?” asks the typical honky, thinking the question only rhetorical, whatever his own sexual habits.  If such sexual habits were fruitful lovemaking, differences of race would wash away like river-water joining the song of the sea.  But, as psychologists like to say, rape isn’t a crime of love but one of anger and resentment.  It’s a crime of hate, and Theresa learned the antipathy.

            To fit on Earth well enough to do her job this trip, she’d have to marry an Earthman.  But she was reluctant to marry a man she came to love, because he was nearly as white as the grandfather, although she also dearly loved the grandfather, especially for the courage of his anger, which she also came to feel.

            “He never had to use it,” she told me of the grandfather and the shotgun, on one of our later afternoons on the levee.  “But he was ready, and so was I.”

            And she didn’t take much guff by herself, either.  Once, in those early days there in Pine Level, as she walked to her black school through a white neighborhood, a white boy rode past her on a bicycle, punching her as he passed.  She caught herself so quickly that, instead of stumbling down herself, she knocked the boy, from his bike.  The boy’s mother saw it from her house.  She screamed from her porch.

            “What do you think you’re doing?” she shrieked, storming down the steps.

            “Why do you all push us around?” answered Theresa, walking calmly on.

            At home she told her Earth-mother of the encounter and learned a little more.

            “What were you thinking about?” exclaimed her mother, wiping her hands on her well-washed apron and taking it off and setting her daughter down on a kitchen chair and herself on another of the same old pinewood, like it in front of her.  “They might have done anything to you.  They might have . . . .  Oh, Theresa!”

            The mother leaped from her seat and bent and squeezed her child in her arms, her face deep in the child’s neck, trying to take some comfort too, as much as she could give.  Theresa felt her mother’s tears, warm on her neck.

 

            Since her burning in Rouen, Theresa had become more Taoist than I.  But she still understood the power of the sword she never used for killing.  That’s also why she liked Slavey so much as you’ll see later, and yet mostly in her childhood this trip she went to church and did her schoolwork, and obeyed her elders, mostly.  She’d like to have knocked more boys off their bikes, but she had another tack to take, later.

            Of course her two main elders were her Earth parents.  Theresa loved having parents, maybe partly because we have no parents, living eternally.  We don’t have death, and we don’t have birth, and so we don’t have parents, to guide our compassion, to do our best.  But Theresa loved her Earth-mother also because she was a teacher to children besides tiny Theresa.  She taught in the little one-room shack that Pine Level blacks called their school.  She had reached high school before being married.  And that was enough to teach school.  That is, in a black school.

            She taught reading and writing, and more than that she taught sharing.  The little building had no custodial staff, and so the children had to keep it clean and to chop and carry in wood for the stove that heated it.  Theresa saw that her mother taught the children to love being in the school, learning and working together.  Without such people, nothing we ever tried to do in our travels could ever succeed.

            However, Theresa’s Earth father was a different story.  He was a carpenter and used his carpentry to get him where he wished to go, which was anywhere he wasn’t.  Slavey and Oliver and I used his skill in carpentry and his tendency toward itinerancy to bring him to New Orleans.  We weren’t supposed to be able to read yet, but of course we could and so found him a job through the Picayune newspaper.  He worked on some houses in Metairie, a white New Orleans suburb.  Later, a KKK resident of that suburb would run for president.  He would lose, of course.

And so would Theresa’s father lose that job, fortunately for us but unfortunately for Theresa’s Earth family, when it was time for us to start being conspicuous.  Despair works many ways among desperate people, and that desperate father left his wife and Theresa and her little brother, in despair in a city with no other family.  He traveled on with his carpentry without a word of farewell, seeking greener grass beyond any hill.  He could hardly support them anyway, and that might have been his excuse, but he didn’t say so.  He went off for a job, never came back, that simply.

            “What will we do?” asked Theresa’s mother, one day in their dawning destitution.

            She taught in New Orleans too, but for little more money than in Pine Level.

            “Let’s go home,” answered Theresa, exactly at the right time.

            So they returned to her mother’s family in Alabama.

            But her father had stayed in the project long enough for us to grow up a little in New Orleans.  Theresa, with what she had learned in her time here ahead of us, helped us in our acclimation.  And the cosmopolitan Quarter helped her, as did her Catholic school.

            In Louisiana, nearly all children were educated as Catholics.  Huey Long built the housing projects and hospitals for the poor, but he let the education system stand as it was, and that was best in Catholic charity.  The public schools were so poor that hardly anyone went to them, unless they were expelled from the parochial ones.  Theresa’s mother taught in a public school, hardly trained but no one caring.  The city paid Theresa’s mother for very much less than they received from her.  But such was rare, and so even she sent her children to the Catholics.

            And the nuns liked Theresa.  We weren’t here not to know what we were doing, and knowing what we were doing required knowing with whom we were dealing.  So, unlike most Earthlings, we were trying more to get along with our neighbors than to get ahead of them.  That made Theresa a willing docile student, earning herself far less knuckle-rapping than her fellow students earned.

            All the nuns were white, and all the students in Theresa’s school were black, but the nuns taught that all were equal under God, and Theresa didn’t ask where the white children were or why, because she knew the answer, as did all the others there.  Theresa just reiterated what the nuns said truly, and kept quiet about the rest.  Nevertheless, much truth was said in sidelong glances.  The children here shared too.

            Outside school, we did as I have said.  We enjoyed being children together, with Theresa behaving as both an older sister and a close friend, and we roamed the noise of the Quarter beside the quiet of the river.  We danced amid the drunks on Bourbon Street, and Theresa sometimes sang them into silence.  We discussed our possibilities on the levee, and the river often sang us into silence.

 

            One afternoon, sunny on the levee, we talked about Bob, our boss.  He had come here himself, two millennia before this current trip of ours, to try to tell Earthlings himself what they most needed to understand.  The trouble was all bigotry and hypocrisy.

            Like Theresa’s, Bob’s Earth-father was a carpenter.  Unlike Theresa’s, Bob’s Earth mother didn’t work, except to care for Bob and his Earth-brothers and Earth-sisters and their father.  Bob was born that trip in Bethlehem, a few miles south of Jerusalem, in the land of Judah, in a stable.  Judah was a tribe of a formerly nomadic people called Israelites, after their patriarch.  The patriarch had been named Jacob at birth, but had earned the name Israel.  He earned it by wrestling with God, or at least an angel.

            I’m reminding you of this to be sure you know that this wrestling has been going on for a very long time, and so I’ll summarize some more.  In the second millennium before Bob came to visit, all the tribes of Israel wandered into Egypt, which was a British protectorate when Oliver and Slavey and I came here this trip, and the Egyptians enslaved them.  So Oliver came and got them out and delivered to them some rules from Bob.  But they didn’t pay much attention to the rules.

            As soon as Oliver went home, they broke two rules in one fell swoop.  One of those rules was not to kill, and the other was not to covet their neighbors’ property.  As soon as Oliver was out of their picture, they tried to kill all the Canaanites to take their land, and they said Bob had told them to do it.  Not only that, but they said Bob told them he’d go down there first and clear the way.  Well, more specifically, at least one scribe wrote that.  At least Lev didn’t write anything like that.

            In the first foray, the Israelites destroyed a city called Jericho, a little northeast of Jerusalem.  They blew down its walls and killed most of its inhabitants and enslaved some others, as those Egyptians had enslaved them.  And later, as they succeeded in their campaign, they built in Jerusalem a capitol for their new settling, and broke another of those rules Oliver had given them.  Bob had asked that, if they wished to thank him for getting them out of Egypt or whatever, they should do it simply and not with a lot of grandiosity or hoo-hah.  He asked that, if they’d build an altar, they shouldn’t cut anything for it, or use any tool on it, or raise it above Earth.

            But, after they did worse in Jericho and in other parts of Canaan than those Egyptians had ever thought of doing to them, they built a grand elaborate temple at Jerusalem and bragged about it as though it would make Bob proud.  I can understand how they might have gotten used to being in one place in Egypt and lost their tendency to wanderlust, and probably lost skills that might have made forty nomadic years in the wilderness less comfortable than it might otherwise have been.  But I’ll be damned if I can understand why they did what they did to the Canaanites, or how they could claim that behavior in the name Bob, or treat him as a golden calf.

Nor, I guess, could Bob, and so he came himself next time, after the temple had fallen pretty much of its own weight, and then Romans were treating that land of little milk and honey much as the British were treating it when Theresa arrived this time.  Bob came hoping that, once and for all eternity, he could make that land holy for all humanity, a place people could look to as a place of peace, an example of good.  And he tried so hard, so thoroughly, so carefully.  And, again, no one paid attention.

He talked a little with the Israelites as a child, getting a feeling of what he was up against in the still for him hopefully holy land, but early in that adolescence of his here he left the Holy Land, to walk about much of the rest of the civilized Earth.  He thought it not only fair to Canaan but essential to his hope of exemplifying for the world, that he spend some time seeing what Earth had become beyond Canaan.

So, leaving his Earth-parents at twelve years old, he walked and sailed from Jerusalem to Djakarta, through India and China, and back.  He also visited the Acropolis and Stonehenge, but he found the greatest lessons in country east of the Holy Land.  I had a little to do with that, having entertained him well with my stories of having been Lao-tzu.  That was my spaceship parked in the eastern sky, the day Bob was born here.  I drove him here to see him off, and wish him well, the best.

He found India most fascinating.  I had learned much from Bodhisattva, who had come to China after the Indians had corrupted Siddhartha Gautama’s teachings against the corruption of Hinduism that had turned Karma yoga into an excuse for slavery, proving for the first time on Earth how the best words can be used to excuse the worst behavior.  Much of what Bob saw in eastern Asia was unfortunate.  But what he learned was lessons nonetheless.  So here’s a little lesson for you, if you please.

            “Yoga” is a Sanskrit word for union, union with God.  “God” is an English word for good, or “good” is an English word for God, however one looks at it.  In India, Hinduism has at least 300-thousand gods, since Indians find so many things good in their simply complicated country.  Hinduism also offers many ways to get to God, to find unity with the universe, yoga.  Four are much more common than the many others.

            One of the four is bhakti yoga, which is becoming good through worship.  Examples not called Hindu are loving Allah and loving Jawah and loving Christ.  Killing people for making a choice different from one’s own in that is not bhakti yoga.  Neither is it good, but a lot of people think it is, and do it.  That’s corruption.

            Another of the four is jnana yoga, which is becoming good through thinking.  Examples not called Hindu are scholars of the Koran and the Torah and theologians like Anselm.  Calling people ignorant for not studying any one book or for not studying all books is not jnana yoga.  Neither is it good, but a lot of people think it is.

            Another of the four is raja yoga, which is becoming good through guiding others.  Examples not called Hindu are not wars, not jihads or genocide, and not crusades.  Much of my little Chinese book the Tao Te Ching is about leadership for peace, for unifying one’s heart with one’s surroundings.  But many Christians think it pagan.

            The one of the four that inspired the caste system is karma yoga.  That is, becoming good through doing the best one can do.  How that became corrupted is that someone decided that a good grocer’s child must be a grocer.  Grocer was the caste of Mahatma Gandhi, and he followed his karma to become a magnificent raja yogi.

            You know, Gandhi was in India while we were here this trip, and he did wonderfully well without our help.  While the Israelites were trying one more time to cut for themselves a piece of Canaan, while the British and other western nations successfully crusaded to help them, with no concern for the Palestinian Canaanites, Gandhi freed India, from Britain.  And Excellent Oliver used Gandhi’s raja yoga in the southern United States, and proudly owned up to it.

            But corruption followed Gandhi, just as it had Moses and the Buddha, and has followed Bob.  The ink was hardly dry on the charter of independent India before civil war broke out, civil war between factions pretending to bhakti yoga, in the name of their names for God.  And remember that this was in the last century of the second millennium after Bob himself came here and tried so hard to stop such horrors from ever happening again, the next-to-last millennium before this now.

            One point Bob tried to make when he visited is widely preached but only partly understood.  Since he doesn’t lie, if he had promised to help the Israelites destroy all the Canaanites, there wouldn’t be any Samaritans more than a millennium later to be either bad or good.  But, by God, there were, and there still are, two more millennia later, a whole lot of them, good and bad, here and now.  But that accords only with a Judaic distortion of the Torah which says that Samaritans are Israelites.  The Torah says Samaritans are most of Israel other than Judah. 

            So we made no new hysteria on the levee.

“I’m not sure we should call her Bob,” said Theresa.

            “Yeah,” said Slavey.  “Maybe we should call her Roberta.”

            “I like that thought,” I said.  “I liked Roberta in An American Tragedy.”

            “You know,” said Oliver, “When I asked him her name, she told me not to worry about it.  He said he is what she is, or she is what he is, or something like that.  I don’t remember the difference.  I remember what makes sense.  I just remember the sense.”

            “One crazy thing about Earth,” said Slavey, “is that the people here least likely to like calling her Bob are the people least likely to understand what she tried to tell them.  Imagine, Theresa, how Cauchon and his Pharisees would have reacted if you had called her Bob in Rouen.”

            “I wonder if she flipped a coin when he was here, to decide what gender she’d resemble,” asked Theresa.  “Maybe he’ll be more like a woman next time, but he was much like a woman that time.”

            “We could call her the anointed one,” offered Oliver.  “You know how much he enjoys affection.”

            “Yes indeed,” answered Theresa.  “But I think she knows we call him Bob because we love her.”

            “Yes, indeed,” we all agreed, as Earth’s sky brightened a little, just a little.

 

            As I said, it was good times on that levee.  But, as Earthlings often wrongly say, nothing lasts forever.  We had to get moving, and we had pretty much figured out our main directions, each of our primary missions.

            Theresa was our flagship and our scout.  She came early to get the lay of the land and would jumpstart the United States civil rights movement and stay through the century, to make sure the rest of us stayed on course and had her help whenever we needed it.  Bob trusts her more than the rest of us, and we see clearly why.  We all care, but she is more responsible.

            Slavey was going to play bad cop to Oliver’s good cop in Theresa’s movement.  Oliver was going to work his way up in the nation’s mainstream institutions, although on the fringe of them where the country was keeping its people of color.  Slavey was going to scream from beyond the frontier, from outside the boundaries of ordinary acceptance, but with threat from the power of unity, like a Mongol horde.

            I was here to help the Russians.  At least that was the only original plan for me this trip, and it was a plenty-big-enough job after Truman and Churchill gave Stalin most of Eastern Europe and about half of Germany.  But, after the United States and Britain gave half of the Holy Land to the Israelites, while most of the people living there were Philistines, I gave a lot of attention to that problem, too.

I guess I should try to be clearer about Hitler.  Yes, he was the most horrible person who ever walked Earth.  But we didn’t come here to deal with him, because he dealt with himself inherently by being so horrible.  He fell by his own weight, a little like that temple in Jerusalem, because the people couldn’t bear him.  And he fell faster and harder, because his weight was so much more.  The people didn’t just jump from beneath Hitler.  They turned back and buried him in rage.  Ordinary time buried the temple.  No one ever hated it much.  It didn’t cost much.  Only money.

Anyway, Theresa went on ahead again.  When her Earth father dumped her Earth mother to follow his lack of destination, she and her mother and her little brother went back where they’d been born, as I said.  And Theresa had to get to work in more ways than one, to help fill the economic gap her father this time on Earth had left.

As Gandhi learned to like spinning, Theresa learned to like sewing, and she did that to help, in Montgomery.  She and her brother and mother spent a little time on their return to Alabama in Pine Level, but Pine Level had never offered much employment.  Some of the family had moved to Montgomery, and Montgomery had public schools in which Theresa’s mother could teach.  Theresa found a job in a tailor-shop on the Army airbase outside the city.  She took her mending to the most rending.

Later there, I would learn to fly those clumsy little Earth aircraft.  But I wasn’t quite old enough for that yet, and Theresa was very nearly an adult, as she quickly proved.  She was already what English-speaking Earthlings nicely call a primary breadwinner for her family, and soon it looked like she might have a family of her own.

On the airbase was a barbershop, and a barber in that shop fell in love with Theresa, the first time he saw her walking past his shop to hers.  His name was Raymond, a name from French for king of the world, and he was king of spirits in the barbershop where he worked, and he wished to be a prince for Theresa.

He wooed her as well as he possibly could.  He smiled through his shop-window each time she passed.  Soon he was running outside to hand her flowers, and soon after that sitting out front in his shiny red Studebaker, whenever no one required his services inside.  He hoped to impress her with that possession, few Alabama African Americans owning an automobile.  But, of course, that didn’t impress a girl who commanded a spaceship, and she thought he was too white, as I earlier said.

But he persisted and started to stop by her house in his Studebaker and deliver flowers to her door.  She wouldn’t come to the door, but her mother did and was impressed, hardly by the Studebaker but very much by the flowers and Raymond’s smile and persistence.  Soon he was spending an hour or more most evenings on the porch-swing with Theresa’s mother, and so at last Theresa learned more about him than his looks and persistence.  Her mother told her a thing or two.

“Mama,” said Theresa, “I don’t want to hear about him.”

“Well,” said her mother.  “He’s a very nice man.”

Theresa also thought he was too old for her.  I mean that she thought he was too old for her age on Earth this trip.  She was still in her teens, and he had saved years to buy that car.  But her mother never mentioned that.

“Mama,” said Theresa.  “Don’t you think he’s too old for me?”

“Well,” said her mother.  “That means he know what he wants.”

After a couple of months of that, her mother began to have doubts of the probity of her daughter marrying this experienced man, but for the same reason that made Theresa accept him.  It was something he said on the porch inadvertently.

“I wish I could do more for those Scottsboro boys,” he said.

“What are you doing now?” this mother was afraid to ask.

            The Scottsboro boys were nine teenage hobos jailed in Scottsboro for defending themselves against white hobos.  All but the youngest of the black boys were sentenced to die of electrocution, after two white girls accused six of them of rape.  White men jailed the white boys along with the black boys but quickly released the white boys.  Raymond worked to fund the defense of the black boys, his righteous risk for all he loved.  Twenty years later, the last of the black boys was released, on parole.

            Theresa, despite Raymond’s whiteness, didn’t wait twenty years to accept his proposal, although she’d made him wait long enough to fear she might.  They married and hosted meetings of his defense-funding organization, and soon thereafter he sold his Studebaker for the fund.  Theresa knew it by the silence before he entered their home that evening.  Not the last rev of the motor, just the screen door closing quiet.

            “Oh, but you loved that car!” cried Theresa.

            Then the king of the world understated the best of it all.

            “I love you!” said Raymond to his space-girl.

Soon after that, Theresa learned that a friend of hers from the Catholic school in New Orleans was working with the Montgomery chapter of the National Association for Advancement of Colored People.  Being very colorful, Theresa liked being called colored, and she looked up her friend.

            She walked in on a meeting and found her friend absent.  Her friend was secretary to the chapter, and her absence gave Theresa a practical reason to be there.  She sat down and took notes and became the secretary, almost as quickly as she had knocked that boy off his bike.  Theresa knows timing.

 

            Meanwhile, wimp that I was, my route to winning friends and influencing people was very different from that of my three companions.  They began their part of our project in the project, developing followers among the adolescent poor.

            I, instead, watched them work, learning the despair of the destitute mainly to know why I must do what I did.  Then I entered the Army Air Corps for a ticket to Yale, not to develop followers but to show leaders where I, their little friend, might follow.  That road was rough by not being as near to the most important people as the others’.

            While they were amid people who shared our feelings, I was amid many who cared little even for the silver spoons they’d had in their mouths since birth.  I needed a lot of help from Lev in making friends with them, a lot of advice from his days in those patrician drawing-rooms in the window to the west.  Lev’s sophistry helped much.

            Theresa also made friends for the future at her church.  Many members of that African Methodist Episcopal church shared her faith in the future, and her willingness to work toward it.  They, after all, also of course, had a more vested interest, than would my Skull and Bones friends.  But Aquinas would never enter an A.M.E. doorway.

            Oliver combined our approaches.  His father, being a Baptist minister, involved him in his church, but Oliver went for other education also.  Before it was over, he would become a doctor of philosophy, exemplifying further our belief in the need for knowledge, for breadth of understanding.  Oliver enlisted Hegel for our side.

            As for Slavey, he took all directions to extremes.  He learned Nietzsche as well as Hegel, and Augustine as well as Aquinas.  At home he learned protestant preacher ways from his father also, and in prison he learned the means of Islamic jihad.  He lived pursuing war and died deferring to peace, either by any means necessary.

But the key phrase is breadth of understanding.  Beyond Hegel and Kant, Oliver loved his Earthly family, especially his Earth-mother’s mother.  He loved that grandmother, and twice in her regard he showed his affection for the honor Earthlings often show to death, although he showed it in a somewhat weird way.

            The first time was when he thought the grandmother had died.  She had fallen down stairs of their building in the project and knocked herself out.  Oliver ran upstairs and leaped from a window of their apartment, and his father thought he had tried to kill himself.  The second time was when she did die.  He did it again.

            He had gotten the idea for doing that from Theresa.  Imprisoned in Rouen, she had leaped from a window of her high tower cell, fifty feet to the ground.  Her prosecutors had held it against her at her trial, saying that she had tried to commit suicide, and that so she wasn’t Christian.

She told me she had done it out of boredom.  She told me she had missed the feel of flying.  She told me she had missed the truth of flying, and so did Oliver.

How better might we say?

 

 

 

Chapter 3

On the Beach

           

            Mostly, at home and in his father’s church, Oliver behaved as a Baptist preacher might expect his son to behave.  He joined the church just as he was beginning school, and he suffered so well through the lack of system in the Louisiana public school he attended because his father would have nothing to do with Catholics, that he won a full scholarship to Boston University.

            It was important to our mission to have him be a symbol of the cradle of liberty Boston called itself, before he returned south and settled near us in Montgomery, where he became a preacher himself, for a Baptist church there.  For his father, his undergraduate major was in divinity, but his doctorate study in philosophy gave him much necessary broader understanding.

            In Boston, Oliver also fell in love with an Earthling.  Her name was Rachel, and he met her by telephone, and they fell in love before they saw each other.  Like Theresa, he had decided to marry, for his position in his church as well as for his credibility in our movement, and he asked an Earth friend to recommend a woman.  But he didn’t expect the process to go so much more quickly than it had for Theresa, or so well.

Immediately on hearing Rachel’s name, he thought of Rachel at the well, in the Old Testament.   For those of you who haven’t read it, I’ll tell a little of that lesson in patience also, that wait for grace.  The Jacob who later became Israel by wrestling with the angel met Rachel at a well as she watered her father’s sheep.

He, also, fell in love immediately, but his Rachel’s father had other ideas and tricked Jacob into marrying Rachel’s older sister, to keep a custom of the time.  But Jacob didn’t give up, and he accepted a promise from the father that he might marry Rachel also, after some trials and tribulation, but mostly a lot of longing.  This, of course, was several generations before Bob’s commandment against adultery.  And, anyway, eventually, Israel did marry Rachel, also.

First, however, nevertheless, Rachel’s sister bore Jacob many children, and Rachel was barren through many years after her marriage to Jacob.  But, at last, she bore Jacob a son, who became Jacob’s favorite as the son of his old age.  They named that child Joseph, and he’s the Joseph of the coat of many colors.  But I won’t trouble you with that part of the story right now.

The point I’m trying to make is that Oliver loved Rachel, and the more because he loved the Bible, and a diversity of colors.  He was happy he didn’t have to wait as long to marry his Rachel as Jacob had to marry the other Rachel, or as long as Raymond had to wait to marry Theresa.  And he was glad she gave birth to more children more quickly, through the worst of their part of our battle.

 

            Slavey’s father this trip was also a protestant minister, not as formally as was Oliver’s but formally enough to send Slavey also to the public school.  Slavey’s father was a spirited man, involved more than any of our Earth families in the fight for African American rights, and his mother was at least equally spirited, and was her husband’s second wife, like Israel’s Rachel.  Slavey’s father was involved in Marcus Garvey’s movement to take African Americans back to Africa, and Slavey’s mother loved his father, and they did all hand-in-hand.

            At about the time Theresa returned to Alabama, Slavey’s father showed his spirit for a better place by taking his wife and Slavey to Michigan, to a tiny town named Albion.  Albion, Michigan, had been a stop on the antebellum Underground Railroad, and so Slavey’s father expected it to be a better place than New Orleans for his family.  Although he knew that the name of the town meant white, he bought a house there through hope and help from his church.  However, on arrival, he discovered that the deed proscribed the house from being owned by non-Caucasians.

So Slavey’s family sold back the house and bought one in nearby Lansing.  And, in that city, the capital of that northern state where slavery had never been legal, Slavey’s father found still less welcome for his freedom movement.  First, an unwelcoming committee burned that second house, and then a committee still less welcoming murdered Slavey’s father, on his way home from his church.

            They pushed him beneath a trolley he was trying to board to get home, and the trolley ran over him.  No one convicted anyone for the murder, and his family’s insurance company said he had probably thrown himself beneath the train on purpose.  So Slavey and his mother and his little Earth-brothers and Earth-sisters were left more destitute than Theresa had been in New Orleans when her father left of his own discord.  Slavey’s father’s congregation was mostly poorer than he.

            Slavey’s mother did what she could to support her family, taking any odd job she could find.  But it wasn’t enough, at least not for the state government family-welfare workers, although Slavey’s family did have food and clothing and a clean little apartment.  The rules didn’t recognize the possibility that a one-parent home of pecuniary poverty could be healthy.  The rules did not recognize Slavey’s mother’s spirit.  And functionaries followed the rules.  They had a checklist.

            “But you have no husband.”

            “We do what we can.”

            “You have no steady job.”

            “I do what I can.”

            “It isn’t enough.”

            But all she could was all she could do, and that troubled her terribly.  Her spirit broken, she was confined to a mental-hospital, after the functionaries placed Slavey and his brothers in separate foster-homes, for their welfare.  The foster-homes were scattered across East Lansing, and the insane-asylum was on a hill in Kalamazoo, sixty-some miles west.  In southern Michigan, the institution was a joke among children.

            “You’d better watch out,” Michigan children would say to their peers, when they exhibited some of the silliness to which most people are prone.  “They’ll send you to Kalamazoo.  They’ll put you on the hill.”

Slavey stayed in East Lansing just long enough to make a record for himself, to show that he could do more than those albion people there would permit from him.  The functionaries couldn’t deny that he did his homework and scored high on his tests, and the other children admired him for it, or at least welcomed his help with their efforts.

            “What do you think you’ll do with your life?” asked his most conscientious teacher, when his academic and social performance took him to presidency of his eighth-grade class.  “You show a lot of potential.”

            “Maybe a lawyer,” answered Slavey, as obsequiously as he could manage.

            “Oh, well,” said the teacher.  “A nigger can’t be a lawyer.  Setting your goals too high will lead to disappointment.  How about something with your hands.  Jesus’ father was a carpenter.  How about a carpenter.”

            That left Slavey pretty much on his own, to shape his life here however he wished, to try to make our point.  So, after he finished the eighth grade, he went to Boston to live with a stepsister, a daughter of his father’s from the marriage less happy than with the wife who gave birth to Slavey.

            Boston calls itself the cradle of liberty, and it was another stop on the Underground Railroad, but it remains largely segregated.  Slavey’s sister lived in Roxbury, an African American ghetto of Boston, mostly a slum.  Slavey found it an easy place to offer his point.  And Oliver was now in Boston also.

            Oliver and Slavey met often in that city.  They discussed possibilities, steps in our movement.  They met away from their Earth-friends, because our plan was for them to take different paths to the mountaintop.  But they gelled their feelings through long conversations, in open public places, out of doors.

            They gelled their feelings trying to meld their speech with yours, your vibrations of wind in your land of the free.  They tried to see and feel how you fit in your union of states.  They somewhat failed, succinctly.

 

            “What do you think about that statue,” asked Slavey, nodding his head to his left, as they sat on the steps in front of the statehouse, the Massachusetts capitol across Beacon Street from the monument to the black Boston regiment whose white leadership sacrificed it and themselves for the Civil War, a big black bronze relief beside steps down to Boston Common, facing the statehouse brazenly, but darkly.

            “Fighting Joe Hooker?” asked Oliver.

            “No,” answered Slavey.  “Mary Dyer.”

            “The statue is beautiful,” answered Oliver.  “But I don’t know anything about the woman.  Yes, please tell me, her story.”

            “Yes she’s what we’re here for,” answered Slavey   “To my mind, that’s the greatest monument in this cradle of liberty.”

            Oliver looked at Slavey.  Then he looked across the street to the war monument, and then back to the statue of the woman sitting apparently peacefully on a high seat beneath a shading tree before the eastern wing of the statehouse.  That black bronze was not warlike at all.  He asked Slavey to keep telling.

            “You know, my traveling friend,” replied Slavey, “that the Puritans traveled here across an ocean, for freedom from oppression of their religious expression.  You know as well that the separation of church and state in this nation’s constitution is for that purpose, to protect religious expression from oppression by the state.  And you know the Puritans didn’t give a damn for the expression of the natives here, because those natives didn’t call themselves Christians.  Then came Mary Dyer.

            “Well, that beautiful peaceful woman called herself a Christian, but she also called herself a Quaker and refused to quake from the particularly peaceful form of religious expression that came with that denomination.  So, less than a generation after the Puritans sailed here for their religious expression, they hanged Mary for hers.  They hanged her on the Common, on gallows they built, right over there.”

            He pointed to the grassy park where people sunned themselves after lunch in this commercial capital, or played or slept homeless, nights on the benches.

            “Do you know that Boston Common was originally reserved as a training-ground to learn to kill the natives if they tried to reclaim some of their native land?”

            “I knew that,” said Oliver.  “Thanks for reminding me so well.  Yes, it’s what we’re here for, Mary Dyer and the Indians.  Speaking of Indians, I wonder how Gandhi’s doing.  A lawyer from a caste of grocers.  It isn’t hopeless here.”

            They rose and walked across the street, so Oliver could see the statue from its front.  They noted that her statue was of black bronze like that of the monument to the black regiment, although Mary had been white.  They walked down Park Street to Brimstone Corner, where Puritan ministers had preached hellfire from the balcony of the church now named for the street named for the park the Common has become.

They crossed the street and wandered back into the Common, to the black bronze of the fountain there, its water flowing narrow and shallow.   

            “What do you think about Palestine now?” asked Oliver as they sat on one of the benches around the fountain there in sight of the church.

            “I still call it Canaan,” offered Slavey.  “It’s horrible what Hitler is doing, horrible not only for the Jews but also for the Palestinians.”

            “I wonder,” offered Oliver, “why the Puritans didn’t go to Palestine.  They wouldn’t have had to travel so far, and the land was nearly as much of a wilderness then as this land here was then.”

            “Good question,” agreed Slavey.  “And the land is holy for everyone.  But the Canaanites might have put up more of a fight than the native Americans, as the Zionists are finding there now.”

            “Legalities and politics,” scowled Oliver.  “Confusion on the earth.”

            “That’s why we’re here,” smiled Slavey.  “To make things plain.”

 

By now, I had joined the Army Air Corps and was at that air base outside Montgomery, where Theresa was working as a seamstress.  And we had our long conversations as well, though segregation made that difficult.

            “How’s it going with the NAACP?” I asked her, sitting on the bench at the bus-stop in front of the Empire Theatre, where Hank Williams was about to become famous, a white man who learned from a black one, maybe too much.

            “Legalities and politics,” she scowled.  “Confusion on the earth.”

            “That’s why we’re here,” I smiled.  “To make things plain.”

            “I know,” she said.  “But it’s crazy.  How can it not be plain that people are being slaughtered for nothing?  Yet the legalities here hardly permit mention of the slaughter.  These Earthlings call it violation of civil rights.  Civil rights are nothing, abstraction.  Slaughter is something.  It’s bloody death.

            “We have a flag we put up outside our office almost every day.  It doesn’t have stars or stripes or anything symbolic on it.  It has plain English words and not many and but one with more than one syllable:  ‘A man was lynched today.’

            “'Today.'  That’s the one word with two syllables!  Do you think the problem might be that two syllables is too many, not plain enough?

            “Today!  Not before the Civil War.  Not before the American Revolution.  Not before Moses led his people out of Egypt.  Today is when a man was lynched, here and now and leaving a family with no brother or no father, with one fewer person to love them and feed them, today and tomorrow and year after year, as long as they may live, beyond today, every day.  How, in this hell, don’t they understand?

            “How’s it going at the NAACP?  Civil rights is how it's going, legalities.  It’s strategies and precedents, trying to use previous insufficiencies as an excuse to be not quite as insufficient now.  You know I’ve lived forever, but here in this grotesque mess I’ve learned to be impatient.  Why can’t we just be plain today?"

            “I’m sorry, Theresa,” I said.  “I wish it were as simple as the Gordian knot.”

            She bowed her Earthly head.  She raised it again, but not apparently happily.

            “It’s simpler,” she answered.  “But we don’t have an Alexander great enough.”

            I didn’t try to answer.  She was working at answers far beyond my forte.

            “That’s my point,” she went on.  “It’s as plain to me as the blue of that sky we flew through to get here.  But I don’t know how to explain it through the superficialities and subterfuge, the legalities of lunacy.  All one should need to say is that it’s bad to cause suffering.  But Earthlings say that themselves, and do it nonetheless.”

 

            I still had a lot to learn, from Theresa and from the Earthlings of this time.  I had joined the Air Corps both for the fun of flying and to go to school on the G. I. Bill, not only to make powerful friends but also to learn their points of view and the points of view that had become academic around Earth and in this nation.  My parents here weren’t nearly as colorful or inspiring as those of my companions, the parents of my cohorts in this project to try again to save this world.  And there was no way my Earth-parents could pay for me to go to Yale and meet the people and learn the secrets of Skull and Bones.

            But let me be more specific.  I guess it’s time to tell you more about my Earth upbringing now, how I decided to go to Yale and how I knew about Skull and Bones, and about Beatrice.  That was all key to my mission’s success.

            First, my Earth-parents pretty much ignored me, both being alcoholics.  My father was promising when young but had drunk his way out of a career in accounting, and my mother had dropped out of school after three efforts to pass the ninth grade, because of what was then called a nervous breakdown.

            “You graduate from high school,” said my father, when I told him I was thinking of going to Yale.  “And, after that, I don’t give a damn what you do.”

            “You’re not so muckin’ fuch,” said my mother, when I told her I was accepted, and I thought of Slavey’s mother being committed for her care.

            I didn’t then bother to analyze the relationship of that attitude and my parents’ alcoholism with the fact that a brother of my father’s was a United States Senator from Connecticut who was graduated from Yale.  But, although the senator never visited our home, he helped me some.  And Lev advised me well, both early and late.

            My academic performance in the New Orleans Catholic school system might have gotten me admitted to Yale, and the G. I. Bill paid most of my expenses.  But my uncle got me into Skull and Bones because what I learned from Lev impressed him, and so did the rich boys I met in flight school.  And, also, of course, my war record helped.  But Beatrice would help me most of all.  As she did in everything, in every way.

            “You know the physical differences between men and women,” said Lev on the levee on an afternoon of my Earthling adolescence, maybe incorrectly assuming that my otherwise preoccupied parents had told me such facts of life.

            “Do you know why rape is impossible?” my father had asked me, on a rare occasion of his talking while walking with me on Earth.

            “No,” I answered, knowing this was one of what my father thought were jokes.

            “Because,” he said without a hint of a smile, maybe or maybe not because he had well learned the common policy of never laughing at one’s own jokes, “a woman can run faster with her skirt up than a man can with his pants down.”

            I didn’t laugh at my father, and I didn’t speak in response to Lev.  My father didn’t seem to notice that I didn’t laugh, and Lev didn’t expect me to answer.  My father went on with his thoughts of himself, and Lev went on talking to me.

            “But, also,” Lev spoke on, “there are important differences in character.

            “Women are more steadfast and admire others especially for that, while men are less predictable and admire others especially for that.  That difference is the usual cause for failure of marriage, divorce of love, divorce.

            “Most women wish to stand by their man, but most men would like to lie by any woman, however much they love their wives.  Women value family and home more than men do, and men use that as an excuse to stick their wives at home while they go off gallivanting.  Men are by far the weaker sex.

            “I put some of that in War and Peace,” he said.  “But I didn’t understand it much myself yet then.  Prince Andre and his father understand each other, feeling that leaving the little pregnant princess to go to war was both most honorable and most burdensome from having to care about the princess and the child.  The burden the little princess most felt was having her husband go into harm’s way.  At least I showed him sorry in the end.

            “Men rake in more money and think they rule the world, but women rule the world because they spend most of the money.  They don’t always sign the checks or swipe the credit-cards or push the computer-buttons, but they make the main decisions for the most important purchases for their family.  Men mostly do that for their toys or for means to rake in more money for women to spend, and war despite all offering of peace.

            “And, deep in their hearts, all rational people know that.  Both men and women know in their hearts that women care more about the most important things than men do.  So it’s a rotten shame that no woman has ever been president of the United States, and it’s a rottener shame that a woman would have to be as trivial as a man to change that.  The president’s job is to rake in wealth for the homeland, by any means necessary.

            “Well, anyway,” offered Lev, “My prince was right about one thing.  He shouldn’t have married the little princess before he’d gone to war, and that’s my advice to you.  I know how you feel about that little girl you’re taking to your school dances, and I know you know the hard rain that is coming.  Go to your flight school, and fly your machines of destruction, and win your war.  Do that before you marry that little girl and start a family.  Do that for sure before you marry her.  What’s her name?  Beatrice?”

            “Yes,” I said, “Beatrice.”

 

            Beatrice was better than I was.  She wasn’t beautiful by the 1950’s standards of the United States.  She’d never have made the center of Playboy magazine, as did her friend Norma Jean.  But an aura of peace and grace pervaded her presence, maybe partly from her being the oldest of three children with an overweening but seldom present father, and a mother who died when her children were young, after loving them well.

            All that would serve our mission well, partly because the Constitution of the United States wouldn’t permit my being at the top of its overt power-hierarchy long enough to do all I had to do there.  So Beatrice was going to have to be not only the wife of a president of the United States but also one’s mother.

            Her family also was better than mine economically.  She didn’t live in the project, but in a Victorian house on Esplanade Avenue.  My dad had drunk himself to death by the time I met Beatrice, and our only family income was a pension from his having spent six months in the United States navy in the Spanish American war before being discharged for arthritis from shoveling coal on a ship.  And Beatrice’s brother and sister thought they were better than I was in other ways also.

            “I had no idea you were so intelligent,” said her sister to me when I was graduated valedictorian from my Catholic high school and let them know I was on my way to Yale.  “We thought you were stupid.  You never talk to us.”

            “Yeah,” said her brother.  “And you listen to classical music.”

            And my mother was afraid Beatrice might be better than I was.

            “She’s not so muckin’ fuch,” she said as soon as she’d met her.

            But my mother wished the best for me, and Beatrice’s siblings knew Beatrice loved me, and they wished for her whatever she wished for herself, and her father didn’t much care.  At least he didn’t care beyond his grasp.

            “I’m the father of this house,” he said, to pretend to power and care when she introduced me to him, as he read pulp fiction in his bed of an evening, when she was too young to be going out at night though he let her, “and what I say goes.”

            My mother said what she had to say to clear her conscience of whatever might happen, and Beatrice’s father said what he had to say to clear his conscience of whatever might happen, and Beatrice and I went our way very well.

            Lev, hearing me repeat her name, smiled but looked down again into the river.  A freighter’s foghorn sounded as the freighter passed us, its waterline well into the river.

            “Tell me again,” I asked, “Why you renounced your books.”

            “I didn’t appreciate women enough,” he answered, and I took his advice.

            I hoped he’d meet my parents, when at last we helped him get to Heaven.

 

My Earth brother liked nothing better than killing deer and smaller animals and fishing in the bayous.  As soon as he was graduated from high school, he moved across Lake Pontchartrain to Hammond.  The town had played as a perfect backdrop for the film In the Heat of the Night, and he fit perfectly in the town as a worker in a small wood-products factory, peeling veneer from trees harvested there and anywhere else.  Eventually, he became a buyer for the company, traveling across the United States finding wood for their products, and he learned to play golf.  But he still preferred hunting and fishing.  So we could never talk together much.

Lev, in War and Peace, shows the horror of what humans call hunting.  He tells of dozens of humans on horses with hundreds of hounds, chasing a wolf.  After the humans drive the wolf into the track of the pack of dogs, the dogs disable the wolf until she’s weak enough for a human to dismount from his horse and cut her throat.  After that triumph, which the humans call the thrill of the chase, they turn their strongest and fastest dogs to do the same to a hare.  Then they hang the wolf and cut off the feet of the hare, as trophies.  Lev met Dylan Thomas in his ghostly travels, in New York City at the White Horse Tavern.  Passing out in the gutter in front of the bar, Dylan died drunk.

"If my head hurt a hare's foot," Thomas had doubted with hope.

My drunken Earth-father fished but never hunted.  He fished all day long sometimes, from a rowboat with nothing but a cane pole with line and bobber and sinker and hook and some bait, most often a worm.  He was raised in Michigan near Albion, and he told me once nostalgically that there in winter he’d fished with a short steel pole through a hole in the ice and stood there all day long, not for the thrill of each little catch, but for the peace.  Wherever or whyever, what he caught was supper for our family, never a trophy.  I guess my Earth brother would think that weak of him.  I don’t know if that father of ours is in Heaven.  But I know he sought plainness.

I know my Earth mother is in Heaven, for her plainness.    

My Earth sister married someone like my Earth brother and also moved to Hammond, where they bought a Victorian house and decorated it with blue and pink knick-knacks and family photographs, and not one single work of art.  My sister said she liked Barbra Streisand, but she owned none of her recordings, nor a stereo system.  She worked as a receptionist for some psychotherapists and learned some of their vocabulary.  She talked about relationships and closure, medication and manic depression.  I couldn’t listen to her talk about Beatrice.  Beatrice was lovely.

Beatrice’s siblings spent no time with mine, although mine would have welcomed that.  To them, Beatrice was upper class, and therefore desirable for the status of the relationship, while not for the actuality.  So my siblings expressed forgiveness of Beatrice’s siblings, while Beatrice’s hardly spoke of mine.

The last time I saw Beatrice’s brother, he had founded his own church and was trying to promote it with a CD of himself, performing what he called gospel rock.  He asked me whether I still listened to AM radio music.  His e-mail address was pastorpete@aol.com.  What was his rationale?  His motive?

The last time I saw Beatrice’s sister, she had dropped out of college and married an automobile mechanic who said he was into Zen.  She reminded me that her IQ had been in the top ten-percent of all the citizens of Louisiana.  She said that e-mail was too inorganic.  If so, from or for what?

Anyway, for all my sympathy, I needed plainer friends.  Beatrice visited her siblings from time to time, because Beatrice is a lovely woman, besides being their sister.  But I curbed that unfamilial influence from my Earth family.

Except a leak I’ll mention later.

In despair.


 

 

 

 

Chapter 4

The Jungle

           

At the airbase outside Montgomery, I behaved pretty much as Pierre had in Lev’s book, drinking with my comrades and displaying bravado in unpredictable ways.  I had also learned a lesson from my uncle the senator, who had helped steal Geronimo’s skull from his grave in Oklahoma and deliver it to the Tomb, the Skull and Bones clubhouse on the New Haven campus.  I wasn’t proud of my uncle for that, but it surely showed bravado in an unpredictable way.  And many big-boys laughed and loved it.

            “Did your uncle ever tell you about it?” asked my Tomb-mate Harriman at a meeting after my initiation into that elite dark secret club.

            “He knows how to keep a secret,” I said, as though my uncle may have told me much, as though he may have trusted me so much.

            So I made a splash in flight-school, by seeming carefree while also becoming expert with those little airplanes.  And I made a splash at Skull and Bones, by learning from Lev to fly the little nuances of his French Russian drawing-rooms.  And I made a more tangible splash in the war, very touching for me.

After 57 successful missions of mine in the chase, a Japanese fighter shot me into the Pacific Ocean.  I was flying a small bomber, with no copilot but a bombardier back in the belly of that little lumbering plane.  I also did not know my bombardier would not make it out alive, and that’s the first thing I thought about as I floated alone in the ocean, the first death I knew this trip here.  I still don’t know how he couldn’t bail as I did, but that doesn’t help my feelings.  He was a friend of mine, and I was responsible.  I was the pilot and more than he knew.  I knew why I was there.

But that wasn’t the last of my thoughts there.  My thoughts turned as they had when I was Pip here to help with the Civil War.  Then also I thought of the deep unsounded Atlantic in which I was floating, having fallen from a harpoon-boat and left alone for hours while the rest in the boat did their work.  Captain Ahab had nothing on me for understanding the depth of the sea.  That is, until he learned its full depth later, strapped dead to the white whale.  Or maybe he did know, with his focus.

He made me his cabin-boy after my friends Quequeg and Ishmael fished me out, and serving Ahab was sound experience for working for Lincoln during the war.  Both Ahab and Abraham had focus, and the two of them even looked a lot alike, and they both fought the white whale.  And they both listened carefully to me, and they both died early, like my bombardier.  Still I don’t know if I could have done better for either.

Yet, of course, that helped me at Skull and Bones also, having been so close to a United States president and to a battle with an enemy I hardly saw and never touched, and having been so close to death myself in that hardly sounded sea.  Eisenhower learned bravado at West Point and quietness from De Gaulle, but he didn’t make the quiet bravado of the circle of the Tomb until after he won at Normandy.

 “What were you thinking about,” Harriman asked me, “all alone in the ocean.”

I didn’t tell him I had thought of my influence on Ahab and Abraham, and so his family hired me to work for them in Texas.  That was my plan, with my degree in economics, to make my way up in the oil business, which powered the world economy, which powered Earth.  But braver silence was Beatrice.

 

I had her name and a portrait of her painted on the fuselage of my plane.  And, after that picture sank into the sea, I rose from the sea and flew back to Beatrice herself, as quickly as I could.  I hadn’t told her I was from outer space, but I did tell her I was going to be president of the United States, and she believed me.

“If that’s what you want,” she answered.  “You’re so brave and quiet.  I know you can do whatever you wish.  And I know it’ll be good for all of us.”

So, as soon as I was back from the war, she accepted my hand in marriage at a military wedding.  The swords of my comrades arched over us and everything, and we went on to Yale and started to raise a family of Earthlings immediately, living in a little apartment just off campus while I studied economics, and that other stuff.

We named our first child Quincy, after John Quincy Adams because he had followed his father John Adams into the presidency.  It was Beatrice’s idea, but I liked it because I didn’t wish to be noisy as a president, any longer than I had to be to get the job done, and legacy would be necessary.  Quincy could carry on, if Beatrice and I could teach him well enough.  And I knew Beatrice could, however busy I was otherwise.

So, after I muddled through the mess of abstraction that academic economists heap onto the concrete dynamics of supply and demand, while having a little fun playing very well for Yale at the United States’ national pastime, I and my little family left the silver spoons of New England for the black gold of Texas, to accept the job Harriman’s family had offered me, to get going in this world, more into our mission.

At first, we rented a house, but we bought a car, to get us around, to get settled.  The car was a red Studebaker, and that idea also came from Beatrice, because I had introduced her to Theresa and Raymond when she had visited me in Montgomery from New Orleans, and Theresa had told her about Raymond’s selling his car for the Scottsboro boys’ defense fund.  Beatrice took all that to heart.

“If they come to visit,” said Beatrice, “he can take us all for a ride in it.”

And soon we bought a house, a little two-story white clapboard just outside the edge of Midland, with a wide front porch looking across the wide Texas plain.  Midland was appropriately named, as then from there one could see across flat land to the horizon, in any direction.  From our home, West Texas reminded me of the wide western ocean into which I’d fallen a few years before.  But Beatrice was much better company than her picture that had sunk in that sea.  We had another son quite quickly.

Soon after buying the house, Beatrice began teaching Sunday school at the Presbyterian Church.  She was making friends, while I was making mostly business contacts in the oil-industry, before Harriman called me from Houston with a little surprise that didn’t surprise me much.  When the telephone rang, I was washing the Studebaker in front of the house on a Saturday afternoon, to take Beatrice and Quincy to church next day in it.  Wiping my hands, I went inside and answered the call.

“Hey,” said Harriman.  “It’s me.”

“Hey, Harriman,” I answered.  “What’s up?”

“I got what you asked for,” he said.

“What did I ask for?” I asked.

“Well,” he said.  “I can’t tell you on the phone.  I’ll drive out to Midland tomorrow.  My dad wants me to look at some things there, anyway.  But, believe me, you’ll be happy.  You’ll be happy.”

Next day, we did our usual Sunday thing.  I drove Beatrice and Quincy to Sunday school and sat through the adult class myself, although a lot of it irritated me a little, not the feelings but the facts.  After Church, we had some of Beatrice’s church friends over for lunch, and after lunch we sat and talked on the porch.  Beatrice sat on the swing, pregnant for our second child.  Quincy sat beside her.

We could see Harriman coming, the dust rising more than a mile away.  As his car became visible out of the brown cloud of dust, Beatrice lowered her hand from her brow and told me it looked like my friend.

“Yeah,” said Quincy, imitating his mother, his hand hardly big enough to shade his eyes from the wide Texas sky.  “That looks like Uncle Harry’s car.”

After Harriman got his hugs, and his howdies and pleased-to-meet-you’s from our church friends, he leaned against the nearer porch-post by the steps.  Beatrice spoke into the first lull in the following congenial Sunday chatter.

“You haven’t eaten,” she said.  “Have you, Harry.”

Still sitting with Quincy on the swing, she looked at Harriman leaning against the porch-rail, his arms folded as he looked down at the assembly of dusty Texas shoes of smiling Texas church-people.  He looked up but didn’t answer.

“Go inside,” she said smiling.  “See what’s left.”

He and I went into the house and got him a plate of potluck fried chicken and Beatrice’s potato-salad from the fridge, and we walked on out the kitchen door and sat on the back steps.  The Azaleas blooming beside us reminded Beatrice of New Orleans, in the Garden District where the houses were much larger but the view much more curtailed.  I let Harriman bite and chew and swallow a little before I spoke.

“Something good, huh,” I said.

“You’ll think so,” said Harriman.

He chewed and swallowed and spoke on.

“We’ve found you a Russian functionary, and we’ve figured a way to get him out of Russia to meet you, and he talks like he might be as excited about the possibilities as I think you are.  God, I hope you can pull this off.”

Harriman usually didn’t say that much in one stretch.  So he was excited, too.

“Okay,” I said, smiling at my school-chum with his mouth suddenly again full of potato-salad.  “How do we do it?  What’s the next step?”

“Well,” said Harriman swallowing.  “It has to be secret.  So, you’re fired.”

“Fired?” I asked, grinning.  “I was just getting good at this oil business.”

“Oh,” said Harriman.  “You’ll stay in the oil business for a while.  But you’ll be on your own, not just working for us.  We’re going to back you in your own oil exploration company, so you can say you’re exploring for mineral rights around Texas while you’re actually gallivanting around the world, making all those friends you say you need.  That is, if it’s what you want, and if you can bear being away from Beatrice, or if she can bear not being with you.  Beautiful azaleas.”

“I’ll try to keep the trips short,” I had to answer.  “And it’s necessary.  We cannot not do it.  Beatrice won’t like it, but she’ll understand.  She understands.”

“You’re a lucky soldier,” said Harriman.  “We’ll get it done this winter.”

 

So, it was in my early days in Texas that I met Gorbachev.  It amazed me later that no one figured that out, as obvious as it should have been to anyone who had read biographies of both him and me.  It took us fifty years to win the cold war Truman and Churchill had caused by their mistakes after Eisenhower and Stalin defeated Hitler.  But that was short-order, considering the size of the mess they’d made.  How could so few have noticed?  What do humans look at?  Why don’t they see?”

I had married Beatrice, the woman whose face I had painted on my plane, and my presidential campaign biographies show only one period in my life after our marriage when I was away from her more than a few days.  It was after the Harrimans set me up with my own oil-exploration company, which I named for a Mexican revolutionary in hope that we might unite all of North America, with its capital at Flagstaff Arizona, someday.  What wasn’t plain?

The biographies say I was off buying mineral-rights from Texas farmers, but I didn’t buy many.  Gorbachev’s biography has him separate from Raisa then also, leaving Russia to visit Western Europe.  Such travel was hardly permitted for someone as low as he was in his Party then.  I understand that few know much about Skull and Bones.  But the CIA should have been suspect.

Anyway in Paris, Gorbachev became my friend, much like my bombardier.  He listened to me, both as a friend and as what the CIA called his control.  And he lost his job for it, but at least he didn’t die early.

“It’s very strange,” Mikhail said in our first conversation, as the morning sun lit the dust of the cobblestones of Montmartre, “that you should name your oil-company for a hero of the people.”

Brilliantly the sun lit the dome of the basilica, the sacred heart.

“You’re going to be a great hero of the people,” I answered.

“Should we tour the Bastille while we’re here?” he asked.

“I’m not much into prisons,” I had to politely answer.

“Neither am I,” said Mikhail.  “I much prefer this hill.”

“Well,” I replied.  “I hope we’ll be a beacon from it.”

“I’m not supposed to know the Sermon on the Mount.”

“But you do.  Isn’t that a little why you’re here?”

“A little,” he said.  “But more for my wife.”

“Do you have any children?” I asked.

“Not yet, but maybe soon, with this new hope.”

 

So we made friends, all of us.  By the time Theresa started our open effort, that December evening by sitting down on that bus and refusing to stand up in front of the Empire Theater without her rights, she had made so many friends that many thought her friends had put her up to that.  Truth, nevertheless, is that not even Bob put her up to it.  She was already up to it, because she was Theresa.  She was just waiting for her own right time.  But Bob and we three others understood.  We saw how well she’d done.

“Until justice rolls down like water,” was Oliver’s answer to the question of how long would last the movement Theresa had begun by sitting down on that bus, when he was asked to accept official leadership of that movement, a new young preacher in the community there, an outsider with nothing to lose, or so the other leaders thought, a child among them, “and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

And, when he said it, Theresa wept real Earthling tears of joy, and all the African Americans in that church then and African Americans in other churches all across Montgomery and the nation shared her joy and much of her courage through the winning of the bus boycott more than a year later, and beyond to national legislation ten more years later.  How long, O Lord?  Ten years, maybe?  More than that!

And further than there.  A generation later, when a student stopped a Chinese communist tank in the Chinese communist capital, by simply standing in front of it in Tiananmen Square in front of the Chinese communist capitol, Nelson Mandela had something to say about it in Africa.  Not in African America, but in Africa!

“It was a Theresa moment,” he said, and he was right as spring rain.

 

Also on one of my rights exploration trips, I met Yasser Arafat.  A couple of future prime ministers, of the state that Earth gave Zionists as much too meager besides hardly appropriate compensation for what Hitler and his supporting sycophant Germans had done to Israel’s people then dispersed worldwide, had formed an organization to force the founding of that state by any means necessary.

One of the means was to blow up a hotel named for the king of Israel we say wrote the Psalms, killing nearly a hundred noncombatant British, Arabs and Jews.  Arafat retaliated, as Slavey might have recommended before he returned to Mecca and learned Islamic brotherhood and tried to take up the methods of Oliver and Gandhi and was killed for that turn to pacifism.  Arafat formed a terrorist counterterrorism organization, hoping to fight fire with fire, I guess.

The organization Arafat formed to retaliate in kind was Fatah.  The future prime ministers were Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir, and the organization they formed was Irgun.  Together those factions refueled the flames in Canaan after all those millennia, with fighter planes from America terrorizing one side and Slavey's inspiration of pride terrorizing the other side, making suicide a means for homicide, unreasonably and irrationally, irreligiously.  

The next means the Zionists thought necessary was to call the retaliation terrorism.  They knew the crusading culture of the Christian nations of Earth would ignore their instigation, and call their retaliation against Yasser’s retaliation an eye for an eye, and support it, despite Christ.  Also, someone calling himself a Hindu murdered Gandhi, the month I met Yasser.  But who cares about Hindus, even in America?

Mikhail and I drank tea in Paris.  Yasser and I drank tea in Jerusalem.  About a quarter of a century later, I would drink tea with Chairman Mao in Beijing.  One of the few things I ever found funny about all these meetings was that so many different Earthlings drink tea but from different containers.  Russians drink it from big glasses while Arabs drink it from glasses a little smaller, and the Chinese drink the tea they keep in China from little cups, while the British drink it from cups a little larger.  As for me, it gave me a buzz, literally.  It made my head buzz.  I didn’t like it.

But it could have been worse.  We could have been drinking vodka or smoking hashish or opium or drinking Beefeater gin or some of Hitler’s hofbrau, and I was plenty spacey enough without so much as the tea.  And, after a while, I stopped finding that funny, after I learned that all that stuff messed up Earthlings’ minds as much as it did mine, and I learned that a United States intelligence collection method was to give alcohol to Muslims as a token of respect, and that many Muslims accepted it as such, despite proscriptions of their religion.  But Yasser wasn’t in on that.

“You can’t stop it,” he told me as we sat in the old city, drinking tea from middle-sized glasses at a table outside a small open-front teashop on the Via Dolorosa, at a table unstable on the cobblestones of that narrow street of that particular vaulted antiquity.  “They’ve started it again, and it won’t stop until they stop, and they won’t stop.  Their heritage is less fair and older than ours.  Peace can’t come from age-old greed, at all.”

Those cobblestones had paved Christ’s path of tears.  And they were far more dusty than those on Montmartre, and Yasser’s people were far more willing to be martyrs than had ever been Parisians or Russians.  As Muhammad, Slavey had offered them that possibility, as Saul of Tarsus had offered it to the early Christians, but Slavey hadn’t expected folks to take it up so fervently.  He’d offered them a religion to unify their pride as a people, and martyrdom as only a symbol of dedication, not as a necessary means.

“I know,” I said.  “They won’t willingly stop.  Many of them believe God gave them this whole country, and many of them covet the country whether God gave it to them or not, and most of them will try to use religion as an excuse, but all of them is not a world majority, or even a majority in Canaan.  They can be stopped.”

“Who’s going to stop them?” asked Yasser.  “The world majority?  The majority in Canaan?  Whatever the majority of people, the majority of power is with the weapons of the United States and the United Kingdom and Western Europe, and they’ve all promised to lend that power to Israel if we make any move to reclaim the land they’ve taken from us.  And, by the way, why do you call the land Canaan, knowing as you must that most of the population is Palestinian?”

“I call it Canaan exactly because I regret that the superiority of weaponry has anything to do with it.  I call it Canaan because the best deal any of you is ever going to get is that you share it with no claim to superiority.  And the only way you’re going to get that deal is by saying so and behaving so.  The western powers will respond well to that, if they can see it.  We have to show it.”

“Well,” said Yasser.  “At least you don’t call it the former British mandate, and you speak a worthy ideal.  So, I think you may be a friend to anyone worthy of a friend, but I have to say again that people calling thievery religion would make that idealism our tombstone if we stood by it alone.  Anyway, who are you, and how did you gain your references, those for this meeting?”

“I’ll answer in a moment,” I said.  “if you will forgive a question in the meantime.  Have you read Kipling’s The Jungle Books?”

“Children’s books,” said Yasser.  “Books for children.”

“From a winner of the Nobel prize for literature,” I responded.   “From an Englishman in India, while England treated India as England did Canaan when I was born on this earth.  He wrote of war, and he wrote of Islamic subterfuge, and he wrote of reasons for both.  And he wrote of how we all could just get along with each other.  Do you know what he said were the ‘Master-Words’?”

“‘We be of one blood,’” quoth my new friend, on this other side of Earth from our landing, from our powerbase.  “‘Ye and I.’”

“I am a friend,” I answered.  “And I gained my references through other friends, and you don’t stand alone.  But I know you’re right that the problem is horribly out of balance, and I know it will take some time and so I’m not asking much from you, not now.  All I’m asking of you now is that you work toward the ideal as well as you can, in the best ways you can see to do.”

“I do that anyway,” said Yasser.  “So I’ll give you the promise, all on my side and asking nothing from you, about whom I know nothing beyond what I see and hear now.  I will never produce an imbalance, never cause more Israeli eyes to be taken than Israelis take from my people, never break more promises to Israelis than Israelis break to my people.  I don’t have the power.”

“Then isn’t it an empty promise?”

“The promise is I’ll do the best I can.”

“Then I believe it’s a good one!”

 

So that was set in motion, however slowly it might move, and Theresa’s movement was moving quickly.  And her timing was right as well to move on quickly to the motor city to be nearer to her Earthling little brother, and to Slavey.  Her Alabama friends in our movement, their movement for their freedom on their Earth, were starting to feel that their private power was more important than their collective motion.  They were vying to be more powerful than she, and so she left them.

By missing her, they learned better and jumped back on her track, their track on their no-longer-underground railroad.  The subtlety of her inspirational devices always honored all of us, as did how she could move so many ways at once while seeming at rest, at peace.  She moved ahead leaving no one behind.

But I wasn’t having her move so far from Texas without coming to visit and telling me some of the details before she put the distance at hand.  I’d been so busy gallivanting that I’d hardly read the newspapers about what was happening in Montgomery, and I hadn’t spoken with Slavey or Oliver in years.  When you have eternal life, you don’t pay much attention to time, and sometimes it goes quickly.  So, before Detroit, I asked Theresa out to Texas, and had her tell me all about it.  We sat on the swing as Raymond drove Beatrice halfway to El Paso and back.  He did love that Studebaker, though not as much as he loved Theresa.

“Tell me about the bus,” I begged.


 

 

 

 

Chapter 5

Dandelion Wine

 

“Oh,” Theresa said.  “It wasn’t that much.  I just sat down and wouldn’t get up, and I still don’t know what got into me, what made me do it that day.  I guess it must have been a lot of things that added up.

“One thing was the legality, the search the NAACP was making for a viable case to take to court.  Other colored people that year had been arrested for not getting out of their seats to make room for less colorful people, but there was always something wrong in the case that might have made it hard to defend.

“One case was Claudette Colvin.  She and an elderly woman beside her both refused to get up.  But, when the driver went to get the police, the elderly woman got off the bus, leaving Claudette sitting alone.  The elderly woman might have been a good case, but Claudette was pregnant, and she wasn’t married.  So our legal beagles left that case alone, so people wouldn’t say Negroes were promiscuous.  That was, any more than they did already, to rationalize their raping Negro daughters.

“But I think it was more the driver that made me do it then.  I’d had a run-in with him before, about that business about having to get on through the front door to pay one’s dime and then get off and get back on through the back door to sit down, if you were lucky enough to find an empty back-seat.  It was raining, and I had no inclination to get back out in the rain just to get back on.  So, in that earlier episode, I just went on back and sat down.  I mean, I just did, as in justice, not injustice.

“I thought the driver might have overlooked the craziness because of the rain.  I’m always trying to give everybody the benefit of the doubt, but I’m often wrong and was that time.  He got out of his seat and came back and ordered me out the front door to get back on at the back.  That time I said nothing, but I did a little something that probably made him mad.  I got up, but I dropped my purse near the front door.

“And I sat down in a front seat to pick it up, and I didn’t hurry about it, either.  The driver’s face was nearly as dark as mine by the time I got out the door, but the color was closer to purple.  So I wasn’t at all surprised that he drove away before I could get to the back door.  I kind of enjoyed my walk home in the rain, since I dearly love rain, as you know.  But Mama and Raymond were pretty upset.

“Anyway, it was that same driver this time.  I’d tried to avoid him since that earlier incident, waiting for the next bus whenever I saw him driving one.  But this night it was kind of late, and I’d been walking shopping for Christmas presents, and so my feet and I were tired.  So I was paying more attention to my feet than to the driver when I got on the bus.  I just dropped my dime in the box and went back and sat down.

“I sat in a front seat of the colored section, beside a man sitting by the window.  A few seats in the white section were empty then, but they all filled up after a few more stops.  At the Empire Theater, a man got on and walked back to me and stood there looking down at me and the man beside me.  The man beside me moved to get out of the seat, and I moved my knees aside to let him out.

“But, after he was out, I moved my knees and the rest of me over by the window and just sat there, looking out at the front of the theatre.  The white man stopped staring at me and turned to look at the driver, who was already watching through his inside rear-view mirror.  He popped out of his seat without waiting for any words from that other passenger, and he walked back to us.

“He had a gun.  He had a pistol in a holster.  I hardly moved, still facing out the window, but I’d moved my eyes enough to see him staring into the rear-view mirror and storming back with his gun.  He didn’t point his pistol at me or even pull it out of the holster, but I had to wonder why a bus-driver thought he needed to pack a pistol, and why the police let anyone do that on a public bus.

“'Are you going to get up?' he asked me, standing shoulder to shoulder with the white passenger.

“'No,' I said, and I still didn’t take my face from the window, but just sat there, waiting.

“'I’ll have you arrested,' he said.

“'You may do that,' I answered.

“Neither did he waste any words.  He took his pistol to the payphone in front of the theatre and spent a nickel to call his boss.  I could hear him talking, getting the go-ahead to quell my disturbance by any means necessary.  A few minutes later, a patrol car arrived with two policemen in it.

“They got on the bus, and one of them asked me why I hadn’t stood up and given my seat to the white-man.  I know it’s rude to try to answer a question with a question, but I felt like being a whole lot ruder than that.  So I gave him the same answer I had given the mother of that white kid I knocked from his bike in Pine Level.

“'Why do you all push us around?' I answered.

“And I remember exactly how he answered, with the frightening authority of any French corporal doing his job.  Your friend Lev was right in suggesting that every single soldier of the Reichkrieg was responsible for the Holocaust.

“'I don’t know,' said the policeman.  'But the law is the law.'”

Had the policeman looked into Theresa’s eyes, he might have seen the little shining onyx that was about to beat the great white whale.  But he didn’t, as I did now, as I listened to the rest of her telling of this dawning of her light here this time.

“So he and his partner arrested me,” she said.  “They didn’t beat me or even handcuff me, but they arrested me and gave me nothing not required by their law, not even the drink of water I requested several times, not even that much justice.

“But there was one kind person working in the jail, and I found that also frightening.  The nice person was the woman who took me to my cell, locking me alone in one but changing her mind just as she turned away to leave me.  She told me another cell had two women in it, and she asked me whether I’d rather not be alone.  I told her it didn’t matter much to me, but she moved me anyway, wordlessly.

“I was grateful for that kindness in that dark place, not because I wished not to be alone, but just because it was kindness.  I was so grateful that I didn’t ask her for water, because that bright warm act of kindness in contrast to the dark cold of the confinement made me feel I owed her not to trouble her more.  It made me feel as though I owed something, to that French corporal jailing me.  And that frightened me.

“I learned a little also from the women in the second cell.  One of them neither looked at me nor spoke all the time I was there, but the other asked me if there was anything she could do for me.  Considering the circumstances, the only thing I could think of to help her feel less helpless than we did was to ask her if she might get me a drink of water.  A metal cup hung on a hook above a sink above the toilet.

“She rose from her steel shelf they used as beds there and dripped some water from the tap into the cup.  After I thanked her and drank the water, she expressed her understanding of the meanness of many Montgomery bus-drivers, and she asked me whether I was married.  When I told her I was, she told me some of why she was there, and I could not understand her story.  It made hardly any sense to me.

“She said that her husband was dead, and that she was keeping company with another man.  She said that that man had attacked her, and that she had tried to retaliate with a hatchet, and that he’d had her arrested.  She said that he’d healed somewhat during her two months here and that now he wished to get her out of jail.  But she said she now preferred to have nothing to do with him.  Good, I thought.

“But bad was that no one else who knew her knew she was there.  She had a stub of a pencil and a scrap of paper, and she wrote down telephone numbers of her brothers, and I told her I’d call them.   I did, the next day, and I saw her on a street a few months later, but I wondered how anyone’s life could get to such a state, and she was kind and smart!  Could being black degrade as much as that?

“I almost didn’t get the numbers.  At first, she couldn’t find any paper.  But, while the lady jailer was letting me make a telephone call, the lady prisoner found the scrap.  I still almost didn’t get it, because she didn’t hand it to me before my friends arrived to get me out.  But the lady jailer left the cell-door open while she let me through the door to the stairs, and the lady prisoner ran out and threw the paper down the stairs.

“My telephone call from jail was brief but poignant.  Mama wanted to know whether they had beaten me, and Raymond said he’d be down there in a few minutes.  I knew he’d not, because he didn’t have a car and because he didn’t have bail money, and so I loved his faith, which worked out.  My boss at the NAACP and one of their lawyers and his wife, white friends of ours, got there first.  Raymond arrived a little later with the bail money.  He is always a true prince, a shining knight.

“But surely I’d have spent at least the night, had we not a white lawyer.

“Poor Raymond.  He loves me so much, and he had to call a friend to get a ride to come and get me, because he’d sold that Studebaker for the Scottsboro boys.  One thing we’ll have to do in Detroit is buy him a car.  That we’ll have to do.”

“Do you think we’ll ever see him again?” I asked.

“Beatrice will guide him back by suppertime, I guess,” she answered.

“So tell me more!  What happened next?” I asked.

“Well, everybody jumped into confab mode.  Telephones were ringing all over black Montgomery.  Nixon, my NAACP boss, saw this straight off as the perfect case, the one we’d been waiting for.  No one could fault my decency, since the nastiest thing I’ve done this trip is knocking that white-boy off his bike and bragging about it.  Raymond was sick from worrying about me being in jail, and the thought of my doing more sickened him more.  But he came around, because he knew we must.  He agreed because he knew we had to.  He’s a very brave man.  Such heart.”

She paused a moment, and looked at the horizon, before going on.

“My fiery friend with whom I went to school in New Orleans stepped out of line as soon as she heard.  Without asking anyone, before the night was over, she gathered some friends, and went to work.  One of her friends had access to a mimeograph machine, and they ran off a few thousand copies of a flyer.  By dawn, they had distributed them all over black Montgomery.  The note she wrote asked that no one ride a bus Monday.  That school-chum of mine actually started the boycott.  The rest of us just fell in step from there.  Such spirit here on Earth sometimes.

“And a white friend, who worked for the main Montgomery newspaper, published the text of the flyer on the Sunday paper’s front page, as though it were news.  And, with the help of that posting, and the spirit and speech of thousands of other colorful friends in Montgomery, by Monday morning it was big news.  I couldn’t see a bus-stop from our apartment, but Oliver could see one from his and Rachel’s kitchen window.  So he saw that the first bus at that stop that Monday morning carried no person, except the driver.

“Later that morning was my trial.  I pleaded not guilty to a standing-room-only crowd in the courtroom, and was found guilty.  It was what we’d wished for, so we could appeal to higher courts, but a wonderfully higher court was held that evening in the biggest black church in Montgomery.  That weekend, my school-chum’s organization, the Women’s Political Council, had published another flyer, more officially.  This one requested attendance at a mass meeting at the church.

That court was standing-room-only inside the church, and outside the church and into the street.  People were hollering and singing and saying things like that I was sweet and that they’d messed with the wrong one now.  At another meeting, during the weekend at Oliver’s church, Oliver had been asked to lead whatever came of this.  He led this meeting at this larger church, and now it was all official.  African American Montgomery stood united.  There was no stopping us now.

“That’s about it.  The boycott was on.  The city council and the bus company fought it with everything they had, and some of those cowards who call themselves white bombed some of our houses and ran away in the night like roaches afraid of a midnight snacker, and Oliver’s house was one bombed.  But Rachel kept the light on, and the rest of us shined as well, and a year later the buses were integrated.

“Oh, and you should have heard Oliver,” she said.  “You know, when he was Moses, he made himself a speech impediment and made his brother Aaron do most of the talking to the Pharaoh.  Not so this trip, not from the beginning, not at all.  That first mass-meeting was an inspiration.  From him to everyone.  Even to me.

“He said our movement wouldn’t end until justice rolls down like water, and his words rolled down like water.  I could hear all that studying he’d done in Boston, but it wasn’t what he said as much as how he said it, with passion flowing like that water.  I was so, so very proud of him.  I thought I’d likely burst.”

But now she sat quietly, looking down like into water.  I shifted a little and looked out at the wide Texas landscape.  Two clouds of dust were rising in the distance, converging from two different directions on the road, one with a big yellow dot in the middle, the other with a little red one.  It was Raymond and Beatrice in the Studebaker, and Ben and Quincy in their school bus.

“Many things are bursting well,” I answered.

“Yes, they are!  How’s Arafat?” she asked.

“Not so well.  He’s keeping his promise to me, but he’s right that there’s little he can do.  Palestinian factions are sprouting up all over the land, and Israelis keep building settlements wherever they wish.  The Arab nations are becoming more hostile, and pushing Yasser out of the picture.  There’s no focus of control for the Palestinians.”

“Well,” said Theresa, “He’s just going to have to sit tight and keep doing the best he can.  No one else there is willing to stabilize or to take the whole heat with a grin.  If he stays steadfast, it’ll get better.  It shall.”

“But it’ll get worse first,” I said.

“How about Mikhail?” she asked, demurring.

“I haven’t heard from him lately.”

Ben ran from the school bus into his mother’s arms.  Quincy followed his little brother off the bus and took a pat on the back from Raymond.  Raymond replaced me beside Theresa on the swing as I moved to sit on the steps and accept my youngest son from his mother.  Quincy took his schoolbooks into the house, and his mother followed him through the door, presumably to start supper, saying nothing, but smiling.

Beatrice was always the best, seeing further than I.

 

Slavey had just returned to Michigan.  In Boston, he had made friends with others who had found reason to give up on the American dream.  Like them, he had made himself into a caricature of the pompous business-people of the whiter race, wearing outrageously fancy suits and straightening his hair.  Then, with them, he had tried to steal monetary wealth.  He’d become a crook, a petty hustler.

Caught in a burglary with some friends, he had made his way into the Massachusetts prison where Sacco and Vanzetti had spent their last days for legally requesting their share of the American dream.  Since their sentence was death, while his was but eight years of his life here, their nation had made some progress, but not enough.

One of Slavey’s partners in crime, who was less colorful than he but had been a partner of his in bed, received no jail time, only probation.  But Slavey spent those years more productively than she would have in prison or did outside and free.  He read, book after book, mostly idealistic philosophy, mostly saying that what had happened to him should happen to no one.  Slavey already knew that better than did Theresa’s cellmates, of course.  But he read the books to learn more.  And to speak in others’ terms.

He also wrote in prison, but mostly letters to his sister in Roxbury, telling her how he felt about what he was reading and making for her the case he had made as Muhammad, that religion had provided the pride powering what had been done to her race, and so her race should find its own religion, to empower pride in return.

“Jesus didn’t have blue eyes,” Slavey wrote to his sister.  “He was Semitic.”

His sister talked to friends of hers about what Slavey was writing to her, and her friends talked to other friends of theirs.  By the time Slavey returned to liberty in the cradle of liberty, he had many friends he hadn’t met.  They were waiting in Roxbury for him to lead them to their liberty.  They had even organized somewhat.

On Grove Hill, in the nearest thing to a middle-class neighborhood his sister’s race had in that land of the pure-white Puritans, they’d made a mosque.  They’d made it of an empty storefront-building while Slavey was in prison, and they called themselves the nation of Islam.  But some people called their mosque freedom house.

They were spreading the relative prosperity of Grove Hill into other neighborhoods of Roxbury.  They were leading others to work together to turn abandoned storefront buildings into clean and productive neighborhood businesses, serving fairly and well.   Later, some people would call them communists.

Oliver and Slavey would talk about that later, in a hotel in Harlem.

“Communists,” said Oliver.  “We both know better than that.”

“Yeah,” answered Slavey.  “But I went to a different college.”

“I was in jail, too,” replied Oliver.  “19 times, if I counted right.”

“Not as long as I,” said Slavey.  “But harder time for less reason.”

Lots of convicts called sharing prison-time going to school together.

But, communist or not, many African Americans in Roxbury or anywhere else would not leave their Christian churches for the Nation of Islam, and yet many of them picked up the communist capitalist essence of the movement anyway.  A couple in Roxbury, Otto and Muriel Snowden, founded in one of those storefront-buildings another organization they called Freedom House and did not call a mosque, and there they carried the spirit more broadly for Roxbury, long after Slavey moved more widely in the world.

The last I looked, Freedom House was still in Roxbury but had moved into a big brick school-building near the mosque, which was still a mosque.  And Freedom House was still doing all it could for the community and was offering the classrooms for classes in real-estate purchasing and electronic data-processing and for church-group meetings and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and for anything else for which anyone would use the space to try to keep Roxbury from self-destructing.

So Slavey had done well in prison.  But, although a branch of the Boston Public Library was within a block of the mosque the last time I looked, Grove Hill had self-destructed much somehow like the New Orleans projects despite whatever hopes Huey Long had for them, like Bedford-Stuyvesant in New York City, like many places.  But we can’t blame Slavey or the Snowdens for that, unless we can blame Slavey for not living eternally on Earth, with all the problems everywhere.

“It needs to be a game of pickup,” said Slavey in his storefront mosque.  “And what needs to be picked up is the revolutionary spirit and the courage to follow it, to follow it for the better, by any means necessary.”

 

So, following his spirit, he took the spirit from Roxbury to Harlem by way of the south side of Chicago and a brief time in Motown to get a little spiritual guidance from Theresa.  We all had to check with the shining onyx from time to time.

Slavey might have sought pointers from the Pointer Sisters, but they hadn’t yet made it past Texas from California.  Motown was then less sounded than Slavey, hardly sounded at all outside the black community, like Slavey.  Slavey’s sound would rise to the world suddenly near the end of this visit of his, as would the music.

Oliver, on the other hand, increased his volume steadily, his politics approaching presidential level before I joined the Republican Party.  He met Dicky before I did, when Dicky was Eisenhower’s vice president, and I was somewhat secretly a gallivanting globetrotter.  After I met Dicky, after Fits Jr. beat him out of the presidency, Oliver and I compared notes, quickly in that hotel in Harlem.  I had to sneak in.

“What’s up with that Fits Jr. character?” asked Slavey.

“Yes,” answered Oliver.  “He speaks so well and behaves so badly.”

“Maybe it’s all those drugs he’s taking for his back,” Theresa suggested.

“How about that Tricky Dicky character?” I asked, seeing no other answer approaching.

“He seems wonderfully sincere,” said Oliver.  “Or, if not, maybe he’s the most dangerous man in the world.”

“My hunch is more like the most dangerous man in the world,” I suggested.  “But that Fits Jr. character might be worse.”

But Fits Jr. helped us cross the line that the governor of Alabama said he’d drawn in the dust in Montgomery, the cradle of the Confederacy:  “Bigotry now!  Bigotry tomorrow!  Bigotry forever!”

“Bigotry” wasn’t his word, but it’s his words' meaning.

Oliver called that governor Pharaoh and said he’d let God’s people go sooner or later, but we all felt we had lost a little ground.  Montgomery, the city of Theresa’s bus boycott, was the capital of that state there.  So, how could the Governor talk like a bigoted bus-driver there?  Didn’t those people ever learn?

Fits Jr. talked to us, which is more than Eisenhower did.  Eisenhower left us to deal with his vice president at best.  Except when he deployed the 101st Airborne Division to keep Pharoah’s National Guard from keeping some kids from going to school in Little Rock, Arkansas.  That we greatly appreciated.

But Fits Jr. didn’t talk to us for anything, until the United States government let the Alabama government let the Birmingham government officially and openly do more damage than the Ku Klux Klan had ever done clandestinely, at least in so short a time!  Why do people have to learn such things?

That lesson came to be called the Children’s March.  Oliver never wished a child to be on the front line of any of the Gandhian battles he was leading.  The government was responding to the non-violent people’s requesting freedom by violently beating them into the ground, drawing their blood and then quartering them in jails.  Oliver hardly hated, but he easily hated the harm done to those peaceful people, and he doubted he could bear seeing children treated so.  He found that doubt self-evident.

But the movement had mandated a life of its own.  Like Arafat in Palestine, Oliver had come to feel himself less a leader of a movement than a plug against improper movement.  His rolling words inspired the spirit in huge audiences now, as Slavey’s were in smaller audiences.  But now mainly his job was to keep people from taking Slavey’s advocations too much to heart, too much in deed.  He had to hold off that flow until Slavey taught his final lesson.  He found that flow self-evident.

Now, the spirit lived its own life, with the people taking it in their hearts to their homes, to their households for table-talk in Oliver’s terms and often Slavey’s, dinner-table talk.  And the households were full of children, black children who talked with other black children, in their backyards and streets and in their black schools.  And those children told each other that they wished to do more than stand in lines to be refused library cards.  They wanted God to help them, and they wished to help themselves.  And they would do it by any means necessary.

They wished to stand not only behind each other in the library lines, but also shoulder to shoulder on the front line.  And Oliver had to let them, because he could not stop them, because he could not stop the spirit he’d worked so hard to unleash.  So he bowed to the children and prayed with them, thousands of them in downtown Birmingham, as the government unleashed the dogs.

It was a nice day for a stroll.  Dust-motes, like those one sees as light streams through a window, were sitting quietly in the sunlight on the concrete of the buildings of downtown Birmingham, but not beaming strongly enough into the eyes of the police and firemen of that city, who were arrayed like the British at Lexington, with their dogs and fire hoses, awaiting black parents, and their children.

The children and parents ambled into the center of the city.  They sang that they should overcome the oppression of their unalienable rights.  Beneath the blue sky with its white clouds, they knelt to pray before the police that they might no longer need to show the third color of the star-spangled banner, the red of their blood the same as the blood of the police, and of the firemen who should have been putting out fires, not feeding this conflagration.  But, answering no prayers today, the city stood ready to oppress.

The children rose beside their parents, and the police let loose the dogs, and the firemen the water.  The dogs tore, and the water smashed, and the children fell in the street, and the parents crashed against the buildings, and the blood flowed.  And the dust lay low, wet and soggy in the street and on the buildings, not mighty now or shining.  Before it was over, three thousand children and their parents were bled away to jail.  But also at last a few found truth to be self-evident.  Before it was over, some firemen wept.

And that’s how it ended, that week in Birmingham, Alabama.  Day after day, the children marched, and the dogs tore and the water smashed, until the first American fireman quelled the conflagration, by simply refraining from turning on his nozzle.  Hell, he couldn’t see anyway, through the water rolling down from his eyes, in a mighty righteous stream of justice.

Other firemen followed him, and the dogs skittered away as dogs would always like to do.  Next, from that year, in the United States of America, was the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  A century underdone.


 

 

 

 

Chapter 6

Through the Looking Glass

 

Yes, in the next year, more than a century after the Emancipation Proclamation!  How long does it take to get the law, claimed and voted upon by the greatest democracy on Earth, to come alive?  How long, O Lord?

The Ten Commandments and the Beatitudes.  The Magna Charta and the Declaration of Independence.  The Constitution and the Bill of Rights.  The Emancipation Proclamation.  All alight in a literate nation.  All saying the same.  All self-evident.  All reasonable.  All rational.  All plain.

So who cares?  But the hosing had caught Fits Jr.’s attention.  Like the post-Civil War carpetbaggers, he saw an opportunity.  So he enlisted Oliver in his campaign, as he had squeaked into the Whitehouse by margin given him by his promises to black people, and by adults and young people who felt he was cute or saw he was young or both, and by Jewish people to whom he promised to support oppression in Canaan, by a narrow margin of many small people.  Oliver, of course, knew what was up, and didn’t officially endorse him, but he kept quiet and let him win, and held Linden to his word for the Civil Rights Act.

Of course black voters might not have been so docile to such presidency, had they been permitted to learn to read.  But Oliver turned Fits Jr.’s narrowness into a broad jump across the line the governor of Alabama had drawn in the dust, a broad leap for the literacy that can keep such private prying out of power.  So, onward Oliver marched to St. Augustine, an American city named for an African saint.  As Lev said, it isn’t all about the French.  Neither is it all about Alabama.  Oliver was after Columbus.

The most beautiful monument in the Puritans’ Boston is that bronze statue of Mary Dyer.  The most beautiful monument in the Conquistadores’ St. Augustine is a bronze statue of Isabella, the Spanish queen who sent Columbus here.  Mary is seated in serenity, while Isabella is seated on a mule as a servant assists her down a treacherous mountainside.  Ponce de Leon founded St. Augustine, seeking the fountain of youth.

Symbolism is rampant, ramping down the rocky path through Columbus’s second voyage, with the seeker of the fountain of youth whose name means lion bridge, to the primroses and other flowers of Florida, and on through the birth of a nation, to modern St. Augustine.  The horror of it is what Oliver found at the end of that primrose path to that oldest of lived-in American cities, that city named for Augustine of Numidia.

The French colonized Numidia, which is now called Algeria and is still full of French influence.  Oliver found horror in St. Augustine, more horror than in any other place he’d traveled.  He found it in the streets and in the courts.

“Racism is more rampant here than in any other place I’ve seen,” he replied.

He could hardly do anything there.  Beatings and killings were commonplace, and the state judiciary supported it, even more than in Alabama.  One of Oliver’s nineteen stays in jails of these United States was there, and no one could get him to speak about what happened to him there, not even Theresa.  How horrible it must have been, to keep Oliver quiet about it.  Somehow Oliver failed in St. Augustine, and he did not return.

Instead, he moved on to Selma.  But Oliver, like Odysseus, is never at a loss.  So he used whatever he learned from Saint Augustine to make Selma a success without a sacrifice of children, but not without beatings and bloodshed of others.  Lev, cared he not more for peace than for war, would have admired what the governor’s gendarmes did to Oliver’s people as they tried to march to Montgomery to try to take Theresa’s movement one more step.  The police let the people cross a bridge just outside their city of origin, then turned them back and attacked them on it, as they tried to retreat.

Police on horseback, like Cossacks and hussars, stormed onto the bridge and into the acquiescing people, flailing and clubbing, on national TV.  Like Fits Jr. in Birmingham, Linden refused support for that march, but this time TV forced him to support another attempt a few days later, with Theresa and Oliver together heading the final steps of this march.  The final steps were in Montgomery to the Alabama capitol, while the governor skulked inside, as the people crossed his line.  So televising the bridge at Selma set the momentum for the voting rights act of that year.

So we'd long lost need for Fits Jr.  And that was fortuitous, because I’d had him killed as soon as he’d committed his political party to the momentum that pushed through our legislation.  Fits Jr. was gone, and the mighty stream rolled on.

No, we didn’t have Fits Jr. killed for the United States civil rights movement, but his death didn’t hurt the momentum.  The voting rights act went through as a Fits Jr. dream before Linden was settled, and the momentum kept Linden a little in Oliver’s corner from then until Linden did himself in with Vietnam.  We knew we wouldn’t have to kill Linden, just let him commit himself to his political suicide, but we had to kill Fits Jr. to save the world from nuclear destruction by his hubris.  That would have stopped all Earthlings’ movement, or at least all humans’.  We couldn’t think of that as sporting.

Anyway, my main motive in killing Fits Jr. was more personal, and in a sense for civil rights.  For me the main motive was what that overweening little prideful drug-soaked spine-broken sliver of humanity did to Beatrice’s friend Norma Jean.  Oliver and Slavey, having been knights of Charlemagne, agreed for similar reasons, for the memory of Arthur, and Guinevere.  You remember I mentioned Norma Jean in New Orleans.

 

Norma Jean’s life was tougher than any of ours, even tougher than Slavey’s.  Her mother was a Bourbon Street stripper, in one of the bars where Beatrice’s father kept track of the cash for things like that, prostitution and drugs.  Norma had no notion who her father was, and she had little notion who she was.

In this, Beatrice showed early how different she was from her siblings.  Beatrice’s siblings made a sort of hobby of trying to think of reasons to call other people stupid, and they found that easy with Norma Jean.  Norma Jean was blonde, because her mother bleached her hair, and blondes then in the United States were supposed to be dumb.  So Beatrice’s siblings decided Norma was dumb and said so, to anyone who listened.  They said it to Norma, to her unhappy face.

Beatrice, however, listened to Norma, and Beatrice spoke to me, and I’ve always listened to Beatrice, and so I also listened then to Norma Jean, and so Norma became my friend as well.  I listened so well, and she spoke so well, that we might have become more than friends, were I not already in love with Beatrice.  Norma liked me because I told her I was going to learn to fly.

“Men don’t let women learn to fly,” she said.  “Do you think it’s because we’re too flighty?”

She laughed aloud with a bright ha ha that made me wish to weep.

“You fly like a bird already,” I answered.  “Please don’t ever let them clip your wings.”

“I read somewhere,” she replied, looking at me with a little scowl, “that British men call women birds.  Do you think that’s why?”

For that, I had no answer, and then she had a long way left to fly, and she spread her wings early, because she had to.  The drugs and prostitution got the best of Norma’s mother early, and took her to a mental institution.  Slavey wept when I told him about it, for his Earth mother and for all of us.

Anyway, there was nothing dumb about Norma.  She was sixteen years old and had a choice of going to an orphanage or getting married, and she was smart enough to seek advice before she decided.  Having hardly any friends, she turned to Beatrice.  They talked on a bench, before the cathedral.

“What do you think of marriage?” asked Norma.

“I think it must be nice,” answered Beatrice.

“How?” asked Norma.

“Well,” answered Beatrice, “kissing is nice.  But it’s more than that.  It’s an important job, raising children.  Nothing on Earth is more important than making sure that people grow up to be happy being good for each other.”

“My mom says I should be a movie-star,” said Norma.  “That’s why she bleaches my hair.  She says girls should have fun, not be tied to a man.”

“I guess,” said Beatrice.  “If that’s what you want.  But I don’t see it as being tied to a man.  I see it as being tied with a man, having fun together.

“I love being a girlfriend, and I love my boyfriend.  You like him, and he says we’re going to be president of the United States, and I believe him.  I believe him, because I believe that together we can do it, and it will be we, not only he.

“I’ll spend more time with our children than he will, and he’ll spend more time with his cabinet than I will.  But we’ll make decisions and plan for both together, because we love each other and understand each other and care about all others also.”

“What about church stuff?” asked Norma Jean.

“I don’t know what you mean,” said Beatrice.

“I mean you go to church.  You don’t go to this church here, the nuns’ church.  But you go to your Presbyterian church every Sunday, you told me.  If a person doesn’t have a church, how can a person get married?  And, if you can, does it count?”

“I think marriages are made in heaven,” said Beatrice.  “But I don’t think that means they’re always made in church.  Jesus didn’t have a church, and he preached the Sermon on the Mount beneath the open sky in a field of wildflowers, lilies and such.”

“I know,” said Norma.  “I tried to go to church a few times, but I couldn’t get myself to keep doing it.  I didn’t have any money, and they passed a plate and talked about their building-fund or this fund or that fund, and I had to just pass the plate on.

“Every time I did it, the people next to me looked at me like there was something wrong with me, and maybe there is.  I’m my mother’s daughter, and I love my mother and don’t think I’d love my father, because of what he did to my mother and me.

“And Mom’s going to a nuthouse, and I might be going next.  At least that’s what the nuns say, when they think I’m not paying attention.  But it isn’t that, and it isn’t the money that makes me feel there’s something wrong with church.  It’s sickness there.

“I mean physical sickness.  Every time I’ve gone to church, the preacher has asked the people to pray for sick people who couldn’t be there that Sunday because they were sick at home or in the hospital with pneumonia or cancer or some other craziness.

“I’ve read the Bible.  I know it says that, if you have faith as a grain of mustard seed, all things are possible for you.  And it tells about a woman with an issue who touches Jesus’s clothes and suddenly doesn’t have the issue anymore.  It just stops.

“The Bible says that Jesus turned to the woman and told her that her faith had made her whole!  If Jesus says her faith made her whole, why does the person writing that say at the same time that what made her whole was something leaving Jesus?

“I know that Jesus told the truth.  When I was little, I was sick all the time, until I got sick of being sick and decided not to be sick anymore.  I haven’t been sick since, and I don’t know why those preachers don’t preach the faith that Jesus taught.

“I wonder why something doesn’t come out of those preachers’ mouths to let those people with pneumonia or cancer or mumps or measles know their faith can make them whole, if they’d just muster a speck of it no larger than a mustard seed.

“I don’t get it.  I know faith isn’t always easy.  But I feel we should try.”

“I know,” said Beatrice.  “I wondered that when my mom died.  My dad wouldn’t go, but she took me and my brother and sister to church every Sunday.  I think maybe she left us because she didn’t feel like she could handle other things, like bringing us up.”

Norma Jean began to weep, sobbing on the bench before the cathedral.

“So that’s why I go to church,” said Beatrice, laying an arm around Norma’s shoulders.  “I keep hoping something can come out of my mouth, and that’s why I go to the Presbyterian church, instead of to the nuns’ church, to this cathedral.

“Protestant churches are called protestant because people can speak more freely there.  The Catholics treat everyone as though the church knows something the people couldn’t understand, no matter how much intelligence or faith they have.

“Everything’s in the Gospels that anyone needs to know, but the Catholic Church treats it like it’s a big secret that people have to depend on the clergy to use.  You’ve heard the stories some of the boys in the boys’ school tell.  That’s a secret.

“You’re lucky you’re not a boy,” said Beatrice, hugging her friend.

Norma stopped sobbing and laughed at that.

“You’ll have to get rid of the headache medicine,” she said.

“What headache medicine?” Beatrice asked.

“Once when I was passing the plate,” answered Norma, “I looked into the purse of the woman beside me, when she was groping around for money to put in the plate.  It was full of little bottles of different kinds of headache medicine.

“How’s that for faith?  How are you going to cure yourself of cancer if you can’t cure yourself of a headache or even have enough faith to wait until it goes away?  One thing I like about boys is that they don’t take a lot of headache medicine."

“Maybe not for long,” said Beatrice.  “I heard a radio advertisement that said that you should take some of that headache medicine if you have a sprained ankle and want to play football.  Think how your ankle will feel if you stop taking the pills.”

“That’s not funny,” said Norma Jean.  “It reminds me of my mom.  I read somewhere that taking headache medicine makes you get more headaches, too.  I think some pain may come from people telling us something’s wrong with us they need to fix.”

“I know what you mean,” said Beatrice.  “The pills do more breaking than fixing, and maybe so does the church.”

“I don’t think I could handle the orphanage,” said Norma.  “With all those nuns, instead of Mom, to see and hear.”

 

So she took her faith to the river and found on the moonwalk a young Merchant Marine, fresh into the service and fresh off a freighter in the port of New Orleans.  With his pockets full of port-money, they were married as quickly as Louisiana would let them be, and Norma was on a bus for Jimmy’s mother’s house in San Diego, while he went back to sea.  Norma rolled out to California, while Jimmy sailed into the Gulf.

San Diego, Saint James.  Somehow I’ve ever confused the two folk songs, “Saint James Infirmary” and “The House of the Rising Sun”, before and after Norma Jean.  Norma graduated by her wiles from the prostitution of New Orleans to that other port in California, without so much as setting step in any Louisiana house of ill repute or knowing she was walking into her own morgue by way of a city named for angels.

And Norma was happy enough with Jimmy’s mother there.  She got a job in one of those diners people think of when they think of the fifties, with the chrome-trimmed red-leather-topped swiveling stools and the little jukeboxes on the counter. 

There, in light, from the electricity inside, from the sun outside the big front windows in daytime, and from the streetlights and the headlights of cars pulling up outside at night, she served pie from glass cases and stuck little green order-slips on a spindle on the sill of the window to the kitchen in smell of eggs and hamburger grease.  Some might call that low in life, but it surely beat the bars of Bourbon Street. 

And she was good at it.  She balanced plates of salad and plates of French fries on her arms all day and after returned home to supper with her mother-in-law, a sad but smiling widow of the most-recently-ended world-war.  Norma laughed and played Scrabble with her mother-in-law and waited for her Jimmy to come home from the sea.  She listened to the radio, danced with herself in the little house, and waited.

You might wonder how I know all this.  Being an immortal alien has its perks, and one is access to Heaven.  Norma told me all this later, including that she loved her Jimmy also.  His stops at home were heaven for her then.

They didn’t do much, Norma and Jimmy.  It was mostly days on the beach and nights in bed.  When she couldn’t get time off from the diner, he came there and hung around drinking coffee and playing the pinball machine, and playing the songs he knew she loved on the jukebox.  She balanced the plates with glances at him, as he tilted the machine and swore, then quickly smiled at her.  That for a time ‘til he was gone again.

One weekend, he drove her to Los Angeles, in a car he had bought for her and his mother, a Ford and not new, but a convertible.  They put the top down and drove the coastal highway, the wind blowing through Norma’s hair she still kept blonde. 

Riding up with him in the driver-seat, she saw the sea he traveled blue and white beyond the sand, and driving in the city she saw sights she’d never seen.  She saw the large lawns of Beverly Hills, bigger and more-tended than any in the New Orleans garden district.  She saw the houses of pink stucco like some dream she’d never known to dream.  She saw herself and Jimmy stopping for hotdogs, as though they were in San Diego.  She saw the waitress in the diner where they stopped.

“I wonder if they need someone,” she said.

“They could use someone,” said Jimmy.  “Look at her.”

“She’s just seen better days,” said Norma Jean.

Back in her diner in San Diego, she kept her habit of not wasting time.  She talked extra to every man in a car she saw to have Los Angeles County license plates.  Next time Jimmy came home from the sea, she looked less at him when he played pinball.  Her focus was more often elsewhere.  She wasted less time waiting now.

“What’s wrong with you?” asked Jimmy, after a day of being ignored.

“What’ll you do if I end up looking like that waitress in Los Angeles?” she said.

“Paint you maybe,” answered Jimmy.  “That’s what sailors do with old stuff.”

He laughed, but Norma didn’t, and next day the question settled quickly.  A man of her new pink stucco dreams sailed in and wafted the tails of his pin-striped double-breasted suit as he sat on one of the chrome and vinyl saddles, spun around to the counter and plopped his porkpie hat on top of the little jukebox there.  He looked around and ordered mincemeat pie, and coffee straight up, like a man.

He glanced around while Norma brought it, and he spoke before she did.

“That guy over there likes you,” he said to Norma Jean.

“Which guy?” she asked, a hand on the counter.

“That sailor playing pinball,” said the pink stucco dream.

“Sailors like every girl they see,” she answered.  “That’s why they’re sailors.  They just grab any breeze they can catch, and then sail on.  It’d be nice if a flyboy would sail in here.  Where are you sailing from?”

“I’m sailing from south of the border,” he said.  “Land of beauty where gardenias grow.  We’ve just finished filming a movie down there, just south of Tijuana.  Now I’m flying back up to Hollywood, to cut it up and put it out.  I mean we’re going to flower it out to the public.  You want to be in movies?”

‘Yeah, sure,” said Norma, glancing at Jimmy, who was pretending he wasn’t paying attention, while the machine did nothing for his inattention, no ball in the slot, no nickel.  “I’m a waitress, not a dreamer.”

“You’re a dreamer,” said the dream.  “I’m going to say this quietly and quickly, so your boyfriend won’t come over here and pick a fight, because I don’t have time for it.  You’re young, and all young people dream, and not all young people are as beautiful as daylight.  You’re young and as beautiful as daylight, and I saw you before I opened that door, like a camera-lens clicking.  I caught you smiling at that customer.”

The dream pointed a thumb at a customer at the end of the counter away from the pinball, and the dreamer scowled vowing not to smile now.  Jimmy pulled a nickel from a pocket and put it into the machine, but he didn’t pull the knob.  Norma made as if to turn away, looking at Jimmy, frowning.  But the dream stopped her.

“Alright,” said the man.  “Here’s the deal.”

With one hand, he pulled his wallet, from his inside coat-pocket.  With the other, he moved his hat from the jukebox onto the stool on that side of him.  He pulled a business-card from the wallet, and after it a hundred-dollar bill, with the same hand.  He laid the bill upon the counter, and the business-card atop it.

“That’s in case you don’t do what I’m going to ask you to do,” he said.  “I’m flying high enough for one day, and so I’m going to land here for tonight.  Tomorrow, at 10:00 a.m., I’m going to come back here and park out front, and hope you’ll be there.  If you are, we’ll go to Hollywood together, and I’ll make you a star.”

This was the first time she noticed him looking at her, and it was a warm look into her eyes, just as her scowl went away.  He was scowling now, and she noticed that also, without a word.  She looked down at the card and the money, as he rose from the stool.

“If you’re not here tomorrow, call me,” said the dream, now with its swagger gone.  “Come see me.  Come to L.A., whatever you want.  I shouldn’t have said that I’ll make you a star.  You’re a star already.  I can just see it.  I can see it.”

He still didn’t smile, and he turned away and walked out the door, waiting until he was outside before returning the porkpie hat to his head.  Through the front window, Norma saw the Los Angeles license plate as he drove away.   The car was a convertible, but not a Ford, and new.  The top was up then, but it was down next morning.

After Norma cleaned out the cash-register, paying for the pie and coffee and getting change from the hundred-dollar bill, she turned and saw Jimmy leaning on the counter.  She hadn’t seen him leave the machine, and now he was waiting for her with a sadness she had never seen in him.  And this look into her eyes was fear.

“What was that guy talking about?” he asked.

“Oh, nothing,” said Norma Jean.  “He said he’s a Hollywood hotshot and he’s going to make me a star.  People like that come in here all the time.  This ought to be a roadhouse.  Probably some wacko drunk.  Acting crazy, talking crap.”

“You’ll never need painting,” said Jimmy.

Next morning, Jimmy sailed back to the sea, and Norma Jean’s dumb blonde hair flew all the way to Hollywood, after rising late to say goodbye as well as she could to Jimmy’s mother.  She thought she had to sneak away, and she didn’t think she had to sneak out much, having no star-clothing anyway.  But still she thought she had to say good-bye, and so she did as well as she could.  After eggs and coffee, she rose.

“I love you, Mama,” she said.  “I’ll be a little late tonight.”

“I know,” said Jimmy’s sad mother.  “Jimmy told me.”

Norma Jean didn’t look to see the look in the eyes of her mother-in-law or wonder how Jimmy had told his mother what no one had told him.  A touch of the back of her hand to the back of the mother’s hanging limp at the skirt of her housedress was the best Norma Jean could manage before she left that little house, with one dress and one change of underclothes in a big straw handbag she’d bought in Tijuana, maybe for such an occasion.

So Norma flew away again, with less excuse, or more.


 

 

 

 

Chapter 7

Innocents Abroad

   

Whichever, Norma did become a star, at once.  The porkpie dream was right about her and had not misrepresented himself.  No Jimmy in any sense, and a respectable producer in every sense, he engineered opportunities one after another for Norma to be seen by anyone he thought could help her.  Before she hardly knew what was happening, no one thought she was just a dumb blonde.  She was the dumb blonde.

Never dumb, she played a dumb blonde in movie after movie, and many of the men of America fell in love with her while their wives and girlfriends raged.  She was the only major movie-star to pose nude for Playboy, and the women raged the more about how dumb they wished she were as their husbands bought the magazine, and did who-knows-what with it.  It wasn’t on the coffee table.

She never got over Jimmy, but neither did she ever see him again, on Earth.  She thought about sending his mother money, but she knew his mother’s world-war widow’s pension kept her as happy as money could make her, and it would have cut Jimmy’s heart out, if she hadn’t already done that, herself.

She married again, and again.  But it wasn’t the same as had come from that serendipitous look on the levee.  The first of the agains was to a sports-legend, a baseball-player who was a role-model to little boys the earth over.  The second of those famous agains was to a literary legend, a playwright who was a role-model to adult artists the earth over.  The first was because she wished to have fun, and the second was because she wished to be important.

She did indeed have fun with the first and stayed as good a friend to him as she had been to Jimmy.  The second was doomed from her days in New Orleans, her days wondering why people would have so little to do with her, besides trying to belittle her.  After that, nothing on Earth could make her feel important.

She married a great playwright so she could learn drama, as though she didn’t know drama to the core of her beautiful soul.  She studied acting with a great acting teacher, as though she couldn’t feel how to act from her lovely heart.  So, after playing a dumb blonde, she played a smart dilettante.  For vision of importance, she boffed the pres.  She thought that that might be her coming out.

It was a lot easier than killing him.  She was a movie-star, and Fits Jr. gathered movie-stars around him, as though they were knights of the roundtable his cabinet might well have been, were he able to understand the concept of a round table.  He had to be at the head of the table, or dancing on it like a jester in his own court.  But Norma had no psychic view, or notion what might follow.

To her, he was the president of the United States, and she was a daughter of a Bourbon Street whore.  To her, every woman in the United States admired that gallant swaggering statesmen, and no one had ever admired her for anything but pretending to be a dumb blonde.  Beatrice and I admired her, but we’d last spoken with her in New Orleans, and now she seemed fine.

She seemed fine, a movie star and hanging out with the President of the United States.  We knew nothing of how she felt about Jimmy or his mother, and the situation seemed to us a dream come true for her.  It seemed to us better than anything offered to her in New Orleans.  We knew she’d not been happy then.  Now we thought she was.  And we’re still sorry.  We’re still sorry.

But enough of my apologies, none of which excuse.  All of us, I and Slavey and Oliver and Theresa, and anyone else on the whole wide earth who’d ever seen people self-destruct should have seen what was happening.  Instead of seeing her films and laughing at her, we should have seen her self and wept with her, for her as for ourselves.

What happened is she said she’d boffed the pres, and she said so publicly.  The Fits Jr. court of adultery thought it might pass as a dumb blonde’s drunk remark, if she said it once.  But the Fits Jr. court that tried and convicted her of being too honest for their comfort knew she wasn’t a dumb blonde and hadn’t said it out of drunkenness.

So they engineered an alternative for everyone involved.  Fits Jr.’s family legacy was bootlegging and union-corruption.  Just as Fits Jr. tried to suck up to Negroes for their vote, his father had sucked up to unions for their members’ money, after ending prohibition ended his earlier means, of making money for himself.  And Fits Jr. had a sense of humor, although he strained it like everything else through the drugs he was taking for his back.  In reply to his telling Norma about PT-109, she told him she’d been married to a sailor.  And then she felt ashamed of saying that.

“But his name was Jimmy,” she said.  “Not Johnny.”

So Fits Jr. had his court find a California union goon to pay Norma a visit and shut her up, and he asked them to find one named Jimmy, for special emphasis.  He wasn’t to kill her but only to threaten her, and the court found a guy named Jimmy Huffa.  Fits Jr. thought that was great, a guy named Huffa to snuff this dame for saying she’d boffed the pres, presumably in the buff, as in Playboy.  For all Fits Jr.’s talk about Arthur and Camelot, he’d never read Le Mort d’Arthur.  So he thought this little plot of his poetic justice.  We were to show him poetic justice.

But shamefully late for Norma Jean. 

Huffa was then a junior goon for a mixed-up operation headquartered at a nightclub in Los Angeles called El Dorado.  One of Fits Jr.’s court-goons met with that union-goon there and discussed the possibilities.  The court-goon made the request, and Huffa said what he thought, got what he could.

“You’ll have to make her an offer she can’t refuse,” said the court-goon.  “We have it that she’s a proud woman, and she’s not as dumb as she looks.  What we’re suggesting is that you offer her a choice between us offing her or her offing herself.  You know, you can talk about like the choice between guns and pills.”

“You talk like I don’t know who we’re talking about,” said Huffa.  “I think I’ve got the savoir faire to do this job, but there’d better be a whole lot in it for me.  Anybody finds out I did it, and every horny jerk in the country’s going to be out to off me.  I’d be out to off me, if I weren’t happily married.  So make me your offer.  How much for this?”

“There isn’t any offer,” said the court-goon.  “The only thing I’m authorized to say is that you’ll be alright.  Things are shifting in Detroit and Chicago and Washington, and someone who can deliver a message like this will be very welcome in any of those venues.  You’ll have to get away from Hollywood anyway, to make big in your business.  Oh, and be sure and tell her your name is Jimmy.  You don’t need to know why.”

Huffa scratched his chin.  He shook up the sediment from the melted rocks in his scotch.  He looked at the instruments standing idle on the bandstand empty of players.  He carefully refrained from scratching either of his palms.  He nearly stuck a stubby finger into an itching ear.  He slurped a little of his tepid scotch.  He returned the glass to the table.  He leaned back in his chair.  He stuck out his lower lip.  He sniffed and nodded.  He said okay.  He did it.

 

 But Norma Jean did not go gentle into that good night.  She hid herself away for a few days in a motel near Big Sur, tried to find herself in the surf beneath the rocks.  She couldn’t find herself there, and so she visited her mother.  She hadn’t seen her lately.

She had had her moved from the nuthouse in New Orleans to a sanitarium in Pasadena.  She loved her diagnosed paranoid-schizophrenic manic-depressive mother and liked to call her the little old lady in Pasadena, as she thought of her as a rose parade.  Later some blond boys made a hit song with that title, and I think Norma might have enjoyed it, for herself and her mother.  But she never heard it, just saw the roses.

She took a taxi from Big Sur back down to Pasadena, something she could afford as a star.  Slavey, for all his eternal life, regretted that his role on Earth never permitted him to visit his mother in Kalamazoo before she died.  Norma was at least lucky in that, in knowing she had done the best she could for her mother, always and forever.

But now, in the threat against her life, she sought her mother’s life as well.  She didn’t know whether she’d ever see her mother again, and so she went to see her now.  She sought two things, in her trek now from the taxi, through the pastel hallways to the courtyard with its many roses.  She sought from her mother advice and consolation.  And her crazy mom delivered both.

Her mom sat in a wicker rocker in a corner of the courtyard beneath a huge rosebush, talking to herself.  Seeing her daughter strolling across the lawn, she shut up and paid attention with wide bright eyes, her irises fluctuating with the sunlight on her daughter as her daughter walked beneath the eucalyptus trees and lilac bushes someone had decided to place in the courtyard for the shade and the scent.  Norma often had wondered how this not-very-big courtyard in this insane-asylum had exactly what it needed, to look like what she thought might be heaven.

“Hi, Mama,” said Norma, kissing her mother on her furthest cheek and settling into the rocker on her nearer side.  “I’m sorry I haven’t been here lately.”

“I know,” said her mother.  “Where was I for you?”

“In my heart,” said Norma.  “Always.”

That was enough for Norma, reminding herself and her mother of the truth.  Details are seldom told or sought in matters of the heart and eternity, and Norma knew that in that moment.  So she and her mother shared the box of candy Norma had brought, and craziness the two of them rattled about this and that and here and there, until the sun looked to be about to turn the afternoon into evening.

Norma kissed her mother again and bade her farewell and took another taxi, this one to a motel in Hollywood.  As she looked at the cheap drapes and a picture of a sailing ship Jimmy might have thought artsy, she thought of him and his mother and her mother and the deep unsounded sea and sparkling sand and her child hand in brilliant motes of dust in sunlight through a window, and she took some pills and went to sleep and never awoke again, at least not there in Hollywood.

 

So, that was my main personal reason for wishing Fits Jr. killed.  But, for the world in general, the reason was how he responded to the Central Intelligence Agency, and specifically to an operative named Rich Abyss.  Like me, Rich was a Yale economist, partly because he took his name seriously.  He saw life as a deep unsounded sea of wealth.  So he delved deep in that rich abyss.

His first opportunity to raise a huge lode of that wealth to the surface was in Germany in implementing the Marshall Plan.  There, he met Charles de Gaulle, whose leadership of the French Resistance and its subterfuge assistance of the success of Earth’s powers less crazy than Hitler at Normandy inspired Eisenhower to evolve the United States Office of Strategic Services into the Central Intelligence Agency.

The Office of Strategic Services was a World War II development of the Pentagon to deliver strategic intelligence to the military for military purposes.  Eisenhower, in his coordination with de Gaulle, saw a need and a possibility to gather intelligence more broadly and use it for civil purposes.  He thought that might be a way to keep peace proactively, rather than repeatedly having to restore it reactively through war.

Rich and Charles talked about that, as they struggled to restore prosperity to war-torn Europe, while watching new wars developing all around the world, from Canaan to Vietnam.  So Charles recommended Rich to Ike, for the fledgling agency he was developing through the leadership of his secretary of state John Dulles and John’s brother Allen.  Ike passed Rich along through John to Allen, who appointed Rich director of the Office of Scientific Intelligence, in Allen’s newly formed Central Intelligence Agency.

Rich’s most widely known project there was the development of the U-2 spy planes.  Rich thought the abyss of possibilities not only deep but high, and later he also developed projects to identify UFO’s.  So he developed the U-2 as an eye to the sky as well as to the earth.  But the eye to Earth nearly got all humanity killed, thanks to Fits Jr.   By that, Fits Jr. proved that we were right.

U-2 surveillance caught on film Soviet development of missile bases in Cuba.  Fits Jr., instead of quietly calling the Kremlin and entering into negotiations, had his staff call the Washington Post and the American Broadcasting Company and anyone else who could spread the word and the pictures, and he entered into a public word-shooting contest that nearly turned into a nuke-shooting contest that could have blown the earth to kingdom come.  His famous speaking-ability nearly turned literally into bombast.

Why?  Ike was still alive and well, and Rich was still at Allen’s CIA.  But Fits Jr., instead of asking people who knew how international exigencies worked, told his yes-men what he thought, and they agreed.  And what he thought was that he’d show the world what a brave young man he was and how he wasn’t going to let those commies threaten America.  Truth of it was that the potential threat was not nearly kinetic until Fits Jr. threatened the Soviets.  After that hectoring, the questionable missiles in Cuba were hardly relevant.  Relevance turned to intercontinental nuclear missiles on both sides. 

But I shouldn’t have said he was hectoring.  Hector at Troy was facing an actual threat.  The Greek army had surrounded his hometown and were parading like Fits Jr. all around.  So Hector nodded his plume to his wife and son and braved the battlefield with the bravest face he could put on from fear for his friends and his family.  Maybe Fits Jr. would have fit better in earlier millennia, but in millennia earlier than Arthur’s if so, if he’d fit well anywhere.  Fits Jr. was more like those Greeks than that Trojan, and the Greeks later learned.  Fits Jr. crusaded publicly for his private hubris.  Greeks learned to call that the tragic flaw.  But, in his short life, Fits never learned.

Yet the people of the United States bought his bombast, as they cheered watching cowboys killing Indians on television, after other Indians had killed the Indian Gandhi, for being too peaceable.  Of course Kruschev, not as crazy as Fits Jr., backed down and pulled out, knowing his missile presence in Cuba was by no means worth the impending doom.  So headlines bombasted that Fits Jr.’s bombast had made the other fellow blink.  All on Earth should have been blinking tears from their eyes through all of that.  And the other fellow became still less a fellow, making all worse.

 

But, still then, my companions and I didn’t decide to take out the fellow who had directed that regression of the fellowship that Rich and Allen and John Foster and Ike and Charles had tried to salvage from the abysmal morass of Truman’s and Churchill’s mistakes.  The final decision did not occur until after the failure at La Baya de los Cochinos, the Bay of Pigs.  There, again, Fits Jr. refused the advice of Ike and Rich to follow Charles’ example.  And this time people died for nothing, nothing except Fits Jr.’s hubris.  That debacle proved a pattern we couldn’t suborn.

Here’s more background.  While Ike was president, Allen made Rich project manager for an insurrection in Cuba.  The three of them based the plan on the success in Normandy, but with less military incursion and more civil revolt.  Charles’ French Resistance forces had provided essential intelligence before the twentieth-century Normandy invasion and essential sweeping-up after, but the mission had cost Earth too many corporals.  Too many loyal soldiers bled their lives into sand.

So, the Eisenhower plan for Cuba was to land not at the Bay of the Pigs.  That area was sparsely populated, and the wish was to maximally apply the Cuban popularity of the insurrection.  The project Rich hoped to manage was a landing at the city of Trinidad, with minimal military forcing, just enough for safe landing, a conspicuous landing, but a safe one.  The conspicuousness would let the internal resistance know of the support, while safeness meant living long enough to provide the support.

Conspicuousness and safeness together meant assurance that the support be substantial but not an invasion by itself.  The bottom line was that this would be an insurrection, with just enough help from outside friends to assure success.

Such was the spirit of General Eisenhower, who went to West Point because he hadn’t funds to pay college tuition.  He learned all his lessons well, and he fulfilled all of his obligations well and never excepted his conscience from that.  He was quite a Taoist himself, not overtly helping us much with civil rights, but assuring that doors stood open.  His Cuban insurrection could have been a piece of quiet glory.  It might have been his crowning glory as one learned person.  But with little public notice.

“For our sins,” Ike might have said, weeping in a shadow.

But Normandy was noisier, and Fits Jr. wanted noise.  He wanted his horn blown, and so he tried to turn Rich’s plan into a perfect imitation of Normandy.  He promised more troops and changed the landing site to the Bay of Pigs.

“That’s a fine ideal you have,” he said to Rich.  “But world opinion is important, and the United States has to take credit for this, and we can’t afford failure.  We have the military might, and we can’t be sure that the Cubans you’ve recruited will hold up their side of the bargain.  After all, they did let Castro take over their country.”

Rich didn’t remind Junior that the United States had trained Castro’s troops at Fort Jackson, South Carolina.  He made a mental note to look up whether Fort Jackson was named for Old Hickory or Stonewall, and which Carolina held Fort Sumter.  He wondered why the statue of Old Hickory in the square named for him in New Orleans so much resembles the statue in Lafayette Park, where homeless people sleep in front of the Whitehouse.  He wondered why Fits Jr. didn’t care about such questions.  He glanced out to the rose garden.  He acquiesced.  He smoldered.  He dreaded.

“I’m here to serve,” he said, rising from his Louis XVI armchair.

“Well, it’s a go,” said Fits Jr., wincing in his Shaker rocker.

 

The invasion went as newly planned, up to a point.  The landing-crafts landed at the Bay of the Pigs, and the troops stormed onto the beach, as their fellows had at Normandy.  Not until the mud of Vietnam did the Pentagon design ground-gripping treads into combat-boots, and so there was a lot of slipping and sliding in the sand, as at Normandy.  The new plan promised little initial conspicuousness, but the landing was plenty conspicuous nonetheless.  Castro’s forces quickly defended.

Men lay dead on the beach, while the people of Trinidad and all of Cuba awaited the outcome, hoping to see it on television someday, if the United States prevailed.  All of Cuba’s official government army concentrated fire on the hundreds of United States troops and a few expatriate freedom fighters, on the beach.  The blood ran, and the water washed, and the sand blew and shifted, and the noise and smell of gunpowder, invented by some Chinaman, sang and reeked, in the air.

Some Chinaman, in the interest of science, or just to blow things up, or only for the noise?  As Ahab said, standing at the rail of his ship, somewhere beyond that bloody water people were plowing their fields, not knowing much of Earth was happening.  Chinamen and Chinawomen were fighting their own battles against communism or anything else that threatened their ability to feel at home, happy in the flowering of their fields.  On good days, in pleasant forgetful minutes, they enjoyed the plowing with dreams beyond, with thoughts of family and friends and further.  However, meanwhile, the Bay of Pigs was sucking blood, as no pig would.

A Massachusetts man named Melville told the story of Ahab at the rail of his ship, abysmally railing at the great white whale in the deep unsounded sea.  As Melville tells the story, Captain Ahab’s first mate stood behind him at the rail, hearing Ahab try to sound the unsounded.  Ahab hears the mate behind him but hardly heeds his presence, until suddenly and inexplicably remembering he’s not alone.  So, suddenly and inexplicably, he turns to address the mate.  We ask for what and do not know our hand.  So Ahab turns to ask what we can know.

“But blanched to a corpse’s hue with despair,” says Melville, telling this tale of silly subservience, “the mate had stolen away.”

Rich stood behind his president, hardly heeded.  Men were bleeding, dying on the beach, and the last resort was to send in the planes.  It was part of the new plan, part of Fits Jr.’s compromise of the old plan, to send in air-support if the ground-invasion looked to fail.  Rich stood behind his president and advised him that now was the time for that, as they stood in the war-room, hardly heeding the situation, through the technology, of the time.  But Fits Jr. heeded not at all.

“I think it’s time,” said Rich.  “For the air-support, I mean.”

“Not yet,” said Fits Jr.  “Half the force hasn’t hit the beach.”

Rich had dealt with two presidents of the United States and one of France, and he knew how to be polite and treat a war-room as a drawing-room, but everything he knew was telling him that everything was wrong with this.  Now, having heard the response to the obvious assessment he’d understated, he knew the crux of the situation.  Fits Jr. wished to be better than Eisenhower, and Rich was a pawn in his play.

“Arthur’s table was round,” said Rich.

“What?” said Fits Jr., reading from his rocking-chair the paper reports clacking from the code-machine.  “This is like Normandy.  I’ve studied Normandy.  The air-support was minimal.  And it was more than was necessary.”

He said that quietly as he rocked, his burr-head brush-cut pointing to the ceiling as he held the spooling paper in one hand.  His other hand rested on its arm of the rocker, as his eyes gazed glazed at his advisor trying to be everyone’s mate.   Whatever their direction, Fits Jr.’s eyes showed little recognition of any substance outside him, outside his present fit.

“Half the force that’s hit the beach is dead,” said Rich.

“Ask what you can do for your country,” said Fits Jr.

So the troops died, and Castro continued, and we killed Fits Jr.  Overweening pride is how the Greeks defined hubris, and Fits Jr.’s pride was about to overween this world.  If we’d let him continue, the cold war couldn’t have been won for centuries, and might easily have turned hot enough to send the whole of Earth to hell.

“You see, I was right?”  said Fits Jr., after the failure of his piggishness.  “If we had landed at Trinidad, our landing force might have retreated into the mountains and told of your failure.  If we had sent in the planes, the world would have thought the United States of America was responsible for your failure.

“So, now, I can plausibly deny our responsibility.”

Ich bin ein Berliner,” said Fits Jr., after the futility of any diplomacy with him inspired the Soviets to build the Berlin wall, to let him and the world know that they weren’t making a career of blinking at this screwball.  His next move to destroy Earth might have been over that.  I thought we should not wait to see.

Ich bin ein Berliner,” I quoted, thinking of Hitler’s bombast.

“And they call me dangerous!” agreed Slavey.

“Doesn’t he know anything at all?” asked Oliver.

“I think he has to go,” I had to offer.

“I think you’re right,” answered Theresa.

I waited for the rest of her answer, my head bowed like Lev’s at the river.  Slavey and Oliver did not bow their heads but looked at Theresa, not with any push or pressure but patiently awaiting the answer they knew would come.  Theresa’s head was bowed like mine, and tears were in her dark and lovely eyes.

“As soon as you can manage it,” she said.

 

By the time to kill Fits Jr., Beatrice and I had brought ourselves and Quincy and Ben to Houston, and Zapata Petroleum was just a sort of funny fringe of my involvement in the world oil-economy, of which Houston was the administrative capital, and I’d made many friends in Texas, large and small.

Two of the friends were Linden Johns and John Conundrum, the former Texas senator and then vice president of the United States and the then governor of Texas, but I recruited a Republican friend also.

Dicky was easy to befriend, because of his ambition to spread his power from sea to sea and further.  His hubris was crazy, but it was easier to control than Fits Jr.’s.

“Yassuh, boss,” I said to Dicky.  “Uh huh.”

“Mm hm,” he said to me, and was my friend.

By that, I made the assassination of Fits Jr., the president of the United States, a bipartisan effort.  Linden was the easiest to recruit, because his hubris was nearly as huge as Fits Jr.’s, while he was far less clever than Dicky.  All I had to do to get him in line was to point out that he’d be president immediately after.  Recruiting Conundrum required Tricky Dicky, before Dicky earned that nickname.

So, from that, the players play fell in place.  It was no game, but Earthlings call such such, and Earthlings are so easy to recruit.  Just tell them what to think they want from life.  So all of this fell quickly into place.

 

 

 

Chapter 8

For Whom the Bell Tolls

 

It was easy.  I would get someone to guarantee a public parade schedule for Fits Jr.  I would get some wacko with a credible motive to snipe him somewhere along the route, and I would get someone more dependable to make sure he was sniped, at the same time from about the same place.  I would slop things up enough to be sure the wacko sniper was caught in short order, and soon after I would have some desperate dude commit suicide by police, killing the caught sniper.

Surely you can see that most of the complication was in finding the right personalities.  Everyone had to be a lot like Linden, but everyone also had to have different skills and opportunities.  Linden and Conundrum were both essential, for the opportunities they presented, for getting the target to the sniping.  The vice president could get him to the city, but the governor would have to get him within rifle range.  So the last problem was how to suck Conundrum into the effort.

Dicky and I had a lot of very long talks.  First, in those talks, I let him understand the power of my position in the petroleum industry.  From that step, the second and remaining steps in the sequence fell like dominoes, from the possibility of his supporting me in becoming a leader in the Republican party’s administration to the possibility of my using that leadership with my petroleum power to make him Linden’s successor as president.  Tricky Dicky bought the possibility.

He was tricky enough to see that I was seeking further steps for maybe my own presidency.  But he also saw that his would be first and that there’d be more tit for tat from both of us along the line.  I was tricky enough to see some tit for tat for all of us, as you’ll see.  But what has this to do with Conundrum?

Easy answer.  Conundrum and Dicky and I had one long and gradually forthright conversation, over scotch with Linden at the Cattlemen’s Club in San Antonio.  I thought it crazily appropriate, since Saint Anthony had been the most powerful single factor in subverting Saint Francis’s organization from Francis’s disavowal of monetary wealth to the Franciscans’ becoming a premier fundraising organization, just as I would be the most powerful single factor in winning the Cold War.  I regretted Anthony’s subversion, and I hoped mine would be for the best.  But I understand mixed blessings.

Within those walls of longhorn decorations, the hangings of horns of dead cattle as though they were trophies of war, we Democrats and Republicans planned the next four presidential elections of the United States of America, the land of the free, our democracy.  Here’s part of the conversation.

“Here’s the deal, John,” said Dicky.  “Would you like to be president?”

 “It sound’s crazy,” said Conundrum.  “Well, of course it sounds crazy.”

“Don’t talk crazy,” said Dicky.  “We’re not goof-offs.  We’re important people.”

“Alright,” said Conundrum, pausing hardly long enough to sip some of his scotch through fresh rocks, not at all like Jimmy Huffa’s at the El Dorado.  “Let me be sure I’ve got this straight.  Someone’s going to assassinate Fits Jr., so Linden will be president.  Then Linden’s going to abstain from running against you, so you’ll be president.  Then you’re going to make me look good, so I’ll be president.  What about the fact that I’m a Democrat, for Christ’s sake?”

“Switch parties,” said Linden.  “Are you too proud for that?  And Christ has nothing to do with it!  Don’t be maudlin.”

So that was the vast bipartisan conspiracy that laid Fits Jr. moldering in his grave, with its flame above, at Arlington.  It was that quick and easy, with my Skull and Bones friend boosting Linden’s selling Fits Jr. on a visit to Texas, the land of the Alamo.  He didn’t know the Alamo had been a mission in a city named for Saint Anthony.  But he was always up for a parade.

“As I remember,” said Fits Jr., “the Alamo isn’t in Dallas.”

“But it’s cattle country,” said Harriman.  “You’ll love it.”

“If you say so,” said Fits Jr.  “Too bad Norma can’t go.”

So we set Fits Jr. on his path to death, and Rich and Mikhail and Jimmy Huffa helped me with the rest.  Rich recruited a dependable rifleman, and Mikhail scared up a wacko rifling fall guy, and Huffa destroyed some evidence.

 

After the Bay of Pigs fiasco, Fits Jr. had to save some face, and Rich was the fall-guy for that.  Rich was good enough at drawing-rooms to know he’d have to take the fall, and to assure that he not fall further than he wished.  He and I had talked, and I’d let him in on the secret of my being from outer space, and he knew enough about outer space to believe me.  He immediately replied by telling me of a couple of things he knew.

“Sometime in the second millennium before Christ,” he said, as we sat on a bench on the capital mall near the Smithsonian aerospace museum, “a pharaoh said he saw foul-smelling circles and disks in the sky.  Do you know anything about that?”

“Must have been when Oliver, I mean Moses, was arriving,” I answered.  “We’ve improved our emission-systems since then.  We’re using more methane, and we’ve completely eliminated sulfur from the mix.  The wonders of modern technology.”

Rich looked at me and looked away and at the cherry-trees, at the George Washington monument and the Lincoln memorial and the capitol.  I don’t know what he was thinking, but he nodded and shook his head and went on.

“Lyon, France,” he said.  “In the last quarter of the first millennium after Christ, some people said they saw a craft land and let three people out.”

“Yeah,” I said.  “Theresa told me about that.  That was when Oliver and Slavey landed to be Orlando and Oliver at Roncesvalles.  Theresa came along for the ride, because she was between jobs and thought she’d take a little vacation.  That’s when she fell in love with France and why she asked Bob to let her be Joan of Arc.  She told those people no one would believe them.  How about you?”

“You’re a stone lunatic!” said Rich.  “What can I do for you?”

The deal Rich made with Fits Jr. was that Rich transfer to the CIA’s UFO unit, which Fits Jr. thought was crazy to begin with.  It was quite a lot like Br’er Rabbit’s begging Br’er Fox not to throw him into the briar patch, when Br’er Fox was threatening bodily harm to Br’er Rabbit.  Br’er Rabbit was raised in a briar patch, and Rich had pretty much raised himself to the sky, trying to identify objects in it.  I don’t remember who came here as Uncle Remus.

But I remember that the outcome delighted Rich, and I remember that he lost no respect from anyone in the Agency.  Fits Jr., on the other hand, had no respect from the good-old-boys of Ike and Allen, having lost it long before the Bay of Pigs.  He lost it by founding the Peace Corps as an arm of the Agency.

Fits Jr. so admired Eisenhower that he tried to outperform him in every aspect of intelligence, not only in that adverse emulation at Bay of Pigs.  He sat in that rocking chair, with those drugs pumping through him, and dreamed up many ways to be ideally arrogant, and one of his ideas was the Peace Corps.

He thought it would be effective and efficient to get smart good retired experts and smart good kids from colleges all over the country to give their best for peace, and to recruit from that lot intelligence-agents.  Ike’s and Allen’s old-boys were quite contented to recruit from such sources as West Point and Skull and Bones, and to leave people whom the Peace Corps might attract to be the force for international peace the ideal attraction to the overt mission of the Peace Corps easily powered more overtly.

But Fits Jr. wished to be the smart-guy.  So he founded the Peace Corps, and now one of the silliest ploys of United States intelligence operations is refusing personnel with overt intelligence experience entry into the Peace Corps.  Of course the silliness is in that the policy doesn’t stop covert agents from entering, and it doesn’t stop recruiting honest young men and women for work within the Peace Corps immediately, or recruiting them for outside the Peace Corps later.  Who would be silly enough to fall for that ploy?

But a sillier ploy of United States intelligence is training military personnel in photography at the Defense Intelligence School and having dozens of them at once practice their new skills taking photographs of the George Washington Monument in their new civilian suits from their new civilian-clothing purchase-allowance with identical cameras from class, days before they go off to embassies all over the world to collect intelligence for defense attaché operations whose overt mission is to collect intelligence, while the fact that they use photography to do it is classified “confidential, no foreign dissemination”.   Doesn’t “confidence” mean confiding, and with whom if not others?  And shouldn’t confiding be sharing to stop alienation, foreignness?

I mean, sharing is inclusion, not excluding les autres.  Of course the motive for that misreferring misrepresentional misnomer is to make the foreigners designated as enemies of the United States pay attention to those low-ranking soldiers with their antiquated equipment and limited training, rather than pay attention to the more adequately equipped and trained operatives.  Of course the Defense Intelligence School doesn’t tell its students they’re decoys.  But who couldn’t figure it out?

Anyway, Rich’s intelligence beat Fits Jr.’s literally to death.  Rich used his unadulterated access to find an expert Agency rifleman and spoke with no one, except the rifleman, about the mission.  He simply told his rifleman that the mission was too secret for other involvement.  Meanwhile, Mikhail did about the same.

The reason Mikhail was able to meet me in Paris so early in our careers was that he had performed excellently in the Soviet Union, both academically and in his profession of the ideals he observed his government to signify loyalty.  So he quickly won recruitment into the KGB, and a trip to Paris, to recruit me.

Harriman originated the idea and originally contacted Mikhail in Russia, and Mikhail presented the idea to his manager.  He referred to my Yale degree and my oil-industry connections and my naming my company Zapata petroleum, which was also Harriman’s idea, as far as I know.  I know for sure that I agreed.

Mikhail didn’t have the access level within the KGB that Rich had within the CIA, but he had access to his manager, who had much more access.  So he proposed my suggestion to his manager, the suggestion that we have a wacko sniper kill Fits Jr. along a route I had ways to know well, and his manager found a resource.

 

My plan was as I’ve suggested, that this sniping be incompetent enough to insure that a sniper be destroyed as well, but I didn’t even tell Mikhail how I’d get that done.  He suggested presenting the plan to his manager as though the United States government would execute immediately anyone caught killing its president.

The resource Mikhail’s manager found was a former United States Marine, a young man who had become disgruntled by not being accepted as an official American sniper and had been discharged for his wacko suggestions and so had offered his services to the Soviet Union.  The wacko’s name was Remington Bosworth.

Remington.  How appropriate.  To make it look on the up-and-up to Remington, we had him go to Moscow to meet Mikhail, and then come back to Houston to meet me.  To keep it invisible to anyone else, Mr. Bosworth never met anyone in it other than the two of us, and that’s where Jimmy Huffa came into the plan, to destroy the evidence.

On that dreadful day in Dallas, we put Rich’s sniper in a room we had rented in the Texas School Book Repository, a building along the route tall enough to open a clear shot.  We got Bosworth a job there, so he could use nearby space to which his job gave him access, to be conspicuous.  And we issued them identical Remington rifles.

Fits Jr.’s schedule was to parade past in a Lincoln Continental convertible with its top down on his way to lunch.  The snipers’ schedule was to wait most of the morning for that, for Bosworth to take two shots whenever he felt comfortable enough to ascertain accuracy, and for Rich’s sniper to synchronize with Bosworth’s sound.

Bosworth watched the pass to lunch and took a shot with ease.  On hearing the sound of that shot, Rich’s sniper pulled his trigger and put a bullet into Fit's Junior's head as it bobbled from Bosworth's shot.  Technology is always more advanced than television, and we saw the whole thing, on tape for television, all three hits.

Rich’s sniper had a camera in his office far more advanced than what those Defense Intelligence Agency students have, and nearly as advanced as the satellite cameras that impressed us when they were declassified in the nineties.  So, surely not for posterity, but to feel responsible for his part, Rich arranged a record of the whole thing.

Bosworth’s first bullet went through Fits Jr.’s neck and hit Conundrum, who must have wished to be president badly or maybe trusted us too much in riding so close, before Rich’s sniper’s projectile splattered pieces of Fits Jr.’s brain all over the car.  Bosworth’s second shot we’d told him to fire for certainty missed the car entirely.

Apparently someone else got involved, maybe someone Mikhail's manager sent along to be sure the job got done, but that person missed Fits Jr. entirely but put more holes in Conundrum.  But Rich's camera showed only the hits and not the hitters, and my team had little reason to care.  Except that it provided helpful diversion later.

I felt horrible when I saw the pictures, Jackie clambering onto the trunk-lid, trying to get help or get safe.  I had already felt bad about her husband’s faithlessness to her, even worse than I felt for her husband’s betrayal of the better things his brother Robert tried to carry through despite him.  But to see her like that.  It was dreadful.

I never told Beatrice any of this, and the only good feeling I ever had later about those pictures was that Jackie went on to a happier life, monetarily wealthy enough and doing things of her own, which was more important, or should be.  Reasonable or not, I feel more hurt for Jackie and for Norma Jean than for the Bay of Pigs.

So the dastardly deed was done, and now we had to destroy the evidence, and Norma Jean helped me with that, by telling me about Jimmy Huffa.  I visited her in Heaven as soon as I heard she’d died, and she told me how Huffa had intimidated her.  And that was exactly the talent we needed to close up this operation.

Rich’s sniper was safe.  He was a dedicated Central Intelligence professional, and he knew no one in this little conspiracy, except Rich, anyway.  Bosworth had met both me and Mikhail, and we could not take the chance of his recognizing us and raising questions, later when we were famous in our roles to win the Cold War.  And Huffa proved the perfect antidote, and the right solution for this mess.

 

By then, Huffa had graduated, not to being a major Chicago union-leader, but to being pushy enough in exploitation of women to do what we needed.  From the sleaze of the non-Pacific side of Hollywood, in his new job as porn-king of people like Fits Jr. but less presidential, he had spread the sleaze to many places, including Dallas.  I knew he would, and I’d watched him grow in this year since what he’d done to Norma Jean.

So I looked him up, at his old sleazy club, El Dorado.  Some things never change, and Jimmy huff-and-puff-and-blow-your-house-down is one of them.  He’s probably as rotten in his grave as he was on Earth’s surface, and he’ll never be in Heaven.  So Norma Jean will never have to look at him again, or at Fits Jr.  The last I heard, she was having fun with that other Jimmy.  Sailing silent silver clouds above.

Anyway, when I found Jimmy huff’n’puff, he was sitting in the silence of afternoon absence of music in his club named for greed for gold in the city of angels, sipping dregs of scotch nothing like Catholic Queen Mary.  Who knows what evil lurked in his heart as he sat alone in that dark closed club as the California coastal sun shined brightly outside, though not as brightly as on the clouds above?

Whatever, I proved him the shadow he was.

“Jimmy,” I said.  “Want a job?”

“How did you get in here?” he asked.

“The door was open,” I answered.  “Trash.”

“Trash,” said Jimmy.  “Trash is a matter of opinion.”

“Fine,” I said, sitting down.  “Oliver Wendell Holmes said that trash isn’t trash. He said it’s just something in the wrong place.”

“Dirt,” said Jimmy.  “He said that about dirt, and he was a lawyer.  Are you in the wrong place?  Are you a trash lawyer?  What do you want?”

I could see the dregs of the rocks in his scotch had become sludge in his brain.  Nothing in his next demeanor indicated knowledge that he was not now alone.  He bowed his head to the table, and his eyes seemed to peer at his eyebrows.

“I have a proposition for you.”

He said nothing, but his eyelids moved.

“Do you remember Norma Jean?”

Now his eyelids moved back where they’d been.

“I have the same sort of job for you,” I said.  “But better.”

He sighed and looked at the empty bandstand.

“I’m listening,” he said.

“I know your business,” I said.  “You’ve built a clientele in Dallas, out of losers who’ll do anything to win but are such losers that they don’t know what winning is, people like you.  Do you understand?”

“I do my job,” he said.  “I’m getting into bigger unions next, to help better people who just do their jobs.  Just tell me about the job and the money, and I’ll do my job.  Your philosophy isn’t my business.”

So I told him the details, among them that Fits Jr. dead couldn’t carry Huffa’s huff’n’puff corruption further.  I told him to find some other such loser and threaten him with a choice of either killing Bosworth or having his family die.  I told him to find someone whose life wasn't much for his family or anyone else anyway.  I was sure he could do that, in the strip-club business.  But I wished to be sure.

“Not a woman,” I said.

“No problem,” he said.

From there the rest was easy.  Huffa found a Dallas strip-club owner, with a wife and several children in school, and in debt and in trouble with Huffa’s employers, who were essentially the Sugar Fits underground legacy, for trying to get out of debt by skimming beyond his cut, and for trying to compete a little on his own in some of their businesses.  For the final deed, I left the timing to loser Jimmy, and he passed it on to the other loser.  The strip-club-owner killed Bosworth on his way from interrogation to jail.  And let himself die of cancer in prison without ranting much.

I killed Huffa myself, back at the El Dorado.  But that was more than a decade later, and it had to do with another move essential to winning the Cold War.  So I’ll wait to tell you about that, until that part of the story.  The next part was getting Dicky elected, after Linden quit.  Meanwhile, Oliver and Slavey were finishing their part.

 

Linden did three more things for us, or failed to do three more things against us, depending on how you look at it.  On the momentum of the legacy of the young dead president, he let the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act go through Congress.  And, on the momentum of his own greed for power, he let Eisenhower’s advisory mission in Indochina escalate into war in Vietnam.  The first of those doings of his was primal to our mission, and the second forced him to resign and make room for Dicky.  But a problem was that the second somewhat conflicted against the momentum of the first.

Seeing dead burnt babies in Vietnam distracted attention from having seen beaten and bitten babies in Birmingham.  But the Alabama legislation after the bus boycott and the federal legislation in the next decade laid a foundation that promised to give the civil rights movement momentum Sugar Fits could not have hoped for for himself, even by having his son elected to the presidency of the United States.  So Oliver and Slavey decided to make three last symbolic gestures, gestures grand and memorable enough to stand in history forever, and then to get out of Dodge.

Or we might count five, rather than three.  First, Oliver would make a grand enlightening spiritual speech to a hundred-thousand Americans from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.  Second, partly because of that, he would win the Nobel peace-prize and make another speech, this one to all of Earth.  Third, Slavey would make a pilgrimage to Mecca and return preaching brotherhood and sisterhood of all on Earth.  Fourth and fifth, Slavey and Oliver would get themselves killed.

They’d be martyrs to the cause, for whatever that is or isn’t worth.

The fourth and fifth, besides being Slavey’s and Oliver’s style, was necessary partly because of Fits Jr.’s death for nothing many Earthlings understood.  Fits Jr.’s death stood quickly, through the momentum of Birmingham and Selma, as at least partly a martyrdom for freedom.  But we couldn’t let another white-man stand alone as Lincoln largely had, as a martyr for black people.  We thought it important that African Americans show their own sacrifice.  And Slavey and Oliver were ready.

One might think that slavery and Birmingham and the bridge outside Selma would stand as such a symbol.  But names of single people ring more signal in the ears of people than do names of deeds or places, or crowds.  Even the name of Hitler rings more loudly in most ears than do the names of Normandy and Auschwitz.  Maybe the reason is like the reason French corporals get so little credit or blame.   People seem to think all things come from leaders.  Big persons build the places and win the wars.  Little persons do nothing but die.  Martyrs are big persons dead.

So, while Linden sent millions of little persons across the Pacific Ocean to kill as many other little persons as they could, Slavey took his own leading personage across the Atlantic Ocean to see what was becoming of the millions of little persons to whom he had given pride in the previous millennium, and Oliver planned a capital march on some land between those oceans, to speak up for all those little persons, for all the people.  Oh, Earth is so complicated, and so unnecessarily.

The civil rights movement had become extremely factional, divided by ideas of how to approach the problem and by egos of persons trying to approach it.  The division between Oliver’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference and Slavey’s Nation of Islam, between civil disobedience and whatever means necessary, was the most famous disagreement.  But the factionalism began much earlier.

It began before Theresa’s bus boycott, when many African Americans thought the NAACP was doing too little by restricting itself to legal action, to court-battles.  For the bus boycott, Oliver and others formed the Montgomery Improvement Association, to focus on that particular event.  Then, after the boycott succeeded, rather than return to NAACP dominance, Oliver and others formed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, to broaden the movement, beyond Montgomery, and past the courts, to all Christians.

Slavey promoted the Nation of Islam, to make conspicuous the alternative to the SCLC’s call to common sensitivity, and Atlanta students formed the Student Nonviolence Coordinating Committee, partly to separate sectarian dominance from their state of affairs.  Then Stokely Carmichael formed the Black Panthers, because all the existing organizations were too peaceful or too clerical or too something, or because he wished to be the boss, le chef de guerre.  That last is always the tragedy.

Nothing on Earth is worse than bigotry, and bigotry cannot survive without hypocrisy.  Grotesquely absurd is that people claiming to fight racism, which may be the ugliest form of bigotry, tried to do it with bigotry.  Rather than all setting aside their egos to form a coalition of all organizations working together, they fought against each other for private preeminence, to be the chief of the fight for freedom.  Were they fighting first for freedom or for their preeminence, their own egos?

Vive la France!  Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité!

Whichever, Oliver’s effort to fill the capital mall with freedom fighters was an extreme exercise in coordination, extreme because of the wish of factions to remain factions, and Linden didn’t help much either, intentionally.  Linden hadn’t graduated from teaching kids in Texas to lecturing politicians in the District of Columbia because he believed in sharing.  He graduated from manipulating children to manipulating politicians because he liked to manipulate.  He liked decisions to be his.

Aware that Linden shared that quite common illness of psyche, Oliver proposed to him a march on the Capitol.  Linden’s initial answer was no direct answer, a message vague through aides that he was too busy killing people in Vietnam to have people storming his seat of government.  Over a little time, the message developed into specifics such as that such a march might distract the populace from the war-effort and might turn into a riot.  Both the war and the race-riots were scaring him.

During that time, Detroit and Los Angeles were going up in flames, and people were using assault rifles as flower-vases.  African Americans were burning and looting their own neighborhoods in cities across the country, and many races and walks of life were standing up to soldiers, not only in Vietnam but also within the United States’ borders.  On the front lawn of the United States Defense Department’s headquarters, American students placed stems of flowers into barrels of American corporals’ rifles.  On a university campus in America’s heartland, American corporals slaughtered American students.

Oliver seized the unfortunate day, to gain from it a little good fortune.  Linden was scared, and Oliver directed the fear, to scare some of the hell out of him.  He promised his personal effort to quell the race-rioting, if Linden would meet with him.  Linden, his presidency out of control, grasped at what he thought was a straw.  Just the two of them, in the oval office, aides dismissed

Other myths call such a signal combat, for mortal hope of immortality.


 

 

 

Chapter 9

Journey to the Center of the Earth

 

“I just . . . ,” began Oliver.

“No,” said Linden.  “Let me tell you why you’re here.”

Oliver acquiesced with a quick nearly imperceptible glance at the luxurious Swedish ivy over the fireplace, the principal hearth of the United States of America.  Looking into Linden’s eyes, he settled down in his French provincial chair beside the fire, as Linden began to speak from his identical chair on the opposite side.

“You’re here because we’re a nation at war.  The war is within, and the war is without, and it is as real as anything and maybe more real than whatever you and I think, whatever my people or your people think, whatever anyone thinks.  So, here’s what your people and my people are going to do.  We’re going to make a consolidated gesture.

“You are not going to march on the capitol of this nation.  You are going to meet with your people, peacefully at the steps of the monument to one of my people, the predecessor of mine who first brought forth legislation specifying your people as having the same rights of citizenship in this nation as my people.  Do you understand?”

“I understand,” answered Oliver, as he rose with caring grace from his chair.

The main door to the office opened, but the aide opening it remained outside.  Excellent Oliver grasped the offered right hand of the also standing President of the United States, shook it briefly without further word, and walked from the office.

“Thank you,” he might have said, “for throwing me into that briar patch.”

But he politely acquiesced again.

 

From there, the toughest thing Oliver had to do was to deal with the extremists who preferred not to stand at the foot of a monument to any white-man.  But those persons were few, and every person in every faction understood the value of the national attention the site would provide.  Moreover, everyone understood the value of a peaceful meeting over a militant march, at such a site.  Persons could speak, not just scream from the crowd.  The people could speak loudly, and clearly with focus.

So the biggest question left was of whose focus.  Some of the Panthers wished to stoke some explosives into the Smithsonian Institution as some sort of grand finale, since no black person named Smith had ever received his name from his ultimate ancestors, and Ian Smith was then white head of the government of Rhodesia, the African nation named for Cecil Rhodes.

Stokely had put that fact together with the fact that the preeminent symbol of international education was the Rhodes scholarship, also named for Cecil Rhodes.  So, therefore, in Stokely’s mind, demolishing anything named Smith was good.  He, too, for his means, was looking for a symbolic gesture.  Ralph Abernathy answered that one.  And he answered it personally.

“Black is beautiful,” argued Stokely, in one of the few coalescing meetings into which he made his way.  “And black needs to be powerful.”

“We all know that,” said Ralph, speaking up without turn offered him, something rare for him.  “But how many people know who Cecil Rhodes was?”

“That,” answered Oliver, also speaking out of turn, “is why Ralph is my best friend.  He is everybody on Earth’s best friend.  Let’s get on with business that can do some good.  Let’s get to work at what we can best do.”

In that manner, many things coalesced.  The final negotiation was for how many minutes each speaker for each faction could spend speaking from the steps.  The final answer was purely democratic, ten minutes for each.  But Oliver lost that concentration, got carried away.  But that was his finest excellence.  It had nothing to do with ego.  He just opened his heart.  He had to do his best.  At Roncesvalles.  Anywhere.

 

The day arrived, and everyone expected many thousands of people.  All the factions had appealed as strongly as they could to their membership, and some experts were estimating that as many as forty thousand people might arrive.

“A thousand for each day Bob conversed with the devil,” said Oliver.

“A thousand for each year you wandered the wilderness, Oliver,” said Slavey, telephoning from the Holy Land.

“A thousand for each decade between my burning and this white-guy’s emancipation proclamation,” had to add Theresa.

Quiet as I am, I didn’t mention what I had called the complexity of Earth in my little Chinese book the Tao Te Ching.  I might have said that the number was four for each of the ten thousand things that make up Earth, but what happened here then went far beyond symbolic numbers, and far beyond experts.  More than one hundred thousand persons showed up, nearer a fourth of a million, and it was a rainbow, after so much rain.  The people were of all colors, and the grass was green on their side of the hill.

Speakers spoke, and singers sang, and the people spoke with one another and sang, from their hearts for themselves, for their families, for everyone.

“We shall overcome,” they sang.

Overcome what?  Overcome anything that tries to stop this rainbow singing!

“My country ‘tis of thee,” they sang.

            Of whom is it?  It is of and for all this broad rainbow singing, and from and for the many who can’t sing!

            “Sweet land of liberty,” they sang, and for a moment, on one small part of Earth, landscaped flat for water standing, far away in place and time from the brambles valley Roncesvalles, one-hundred-thousand people stood their ground, together.  At last, in the rainbow light, Oliver had his turn to speak.

            “I have a dream,” he said, and no one complained that he spoke more than ten minutes.  Not one person there could think of that.  The dream was just, undeniable, plain.  The dream was the rainbow.

It was from the sun.  It was on Earth.  It was right.

 

            Theresa had made the beginning of the twentieth-century movement that had made that dream viable in the hearts of that rainbow that day in the District of Columbia, but she was silent at that presence.  Oliver did well enough by her guidance.

She had moved to Detroit, not only because of her Earth brother and Slavey, but also because she loved the African American music she had watched go there from Storyville.  Slavey had moved there not only to broaden the movement but also for a little peace with a Harlem woman with whom he had fallen in love, whom he had married and with whom he was having beautiful Earth daughters, one after another.  But, however he loved them, that couldn’t stop what he’d started, and so at last their house was bombed and burned like Oliver’s and Rachel’s in Alabama.

Slavey’s segregationist movement had grown large and famous and feared by the white side of bigotry, and some of his Boston friends were using their public power to gain private wealth, on the black side of bigotry.  One of them, the one who had led Slavey’s Islamic movement while Slavey was locked up, was using his religious professions to build himself a sort of harem.

So Slavey stepped from that rise and fall to making his final point, partly through another trip to Mecca, his earlier home here.  We had to distance our just righteous movement from the egocentric greed that made men build bank-accounts and harems for their private esteem, and so Slavey’s pilgrimage to the other side of Earth was a way of literally distancing the movement from the corruption pretending to it.  But Oliver was giving us more reason to get out of Dodge.

And I mean further out of Dodge quite quickly.  A positive reason for getting Oliver out of here quickly was that he had done all he could legislatively, but a negative reason was that he was beginning to behave like that cohort of Slavey’s.  He was screwing around on Rachel, worse than Jacob had screwed around on his Rachel.  Jacob had been complying with the mores of his time.  Oliver had no excuse, at least not ideally, in this time.  And he was breaking hearts across the land.

More, as if that weren’t enough, the chief of police of the United States of America was on his tail.  K. Buggen Goober, the founding director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, was trying to jump on Linden’s kill-the-commies bandwagon by proving that Oliver was not only the negro radical that the mayor of Montgomery had called any African requesting freedom, but also a Soviet puppet.  So, surveilling Oliver, tapping his telephone in hotel rooms, he learned that Oliver was sometimes not alone in bed, while Rachel was at home while he was not.

Of course Goober, who was a closet transvestite, also had more private bigotry motivating him.  Heterosexuality angered him, because it was something he couldn’t do and so seemed to him a mark against his competence, his personal value.

So he hitched up his garter belt and, finding nothing communist about Oliver, other than Oliver’s wish that wealth be shared and his having a few communist supporters, tried to defame him otherwise.  The only available otherwise was Oliver’s sexual promiscuity, and Goober leaped on that like a hound in heat.

As I have said, Theresa was the point-person in our operations, all of them from Hitler to Canaan.  So, when Goober's’s vendetta hit the newspapers, she called a special meeting back in New Orleans.  We sat on the Moonwalk like tourists from Trenton, because Theresa bade us not look into the river for excuses.  She directed us, more directly than usual, to look into ourselves.  And we did.

 

“What are you doing?” asked Theresa of Oliver.  “Your screwing around is going to screw up memories of what you’ve done and screw up what more memories of you could do.  It’s called legacy here, what you’re screwing up.  You’re acting like Fits Jr.”

“Oh, please,” was Oliver’s first reply, looking into air without the grounding of the river, but then he glanced into himself and went on with his eyes apparently gazing across the river, but looking more like he had his tail between his legs.  He went on.

“Remember Siddhartha Gautama?” he asked.  “He wasn’t one of us, but he tried to be like the best of us, and he said that giving up sex was the hardest part for him.  Look how beautiful these Earth women are, with all their softness and warmth, their grace.  Just look at you, your onyx eyes, far-seeing.”

“But they’re Earth women,” argued Theresa.  “And you’re not an Earth man, and not right, in this.”

“Look at you,” Oliver repeated.  “If I had come here as a woman, I’d have to be a lesbian.”

No one answered that dilemma, and no one had to.  Theresa was right, and Oliver was both right and wrong.  So we let him make one more big pitch, his Nobel peace prize speech not for his race here this time, but for the whole rainbow, the whole Earth.  We let him present to this world a real threat of a lot of poor people: poor yellow people like those being bombed in Vietnam, poor red people like those robbed of their land in New York, poor brown people like those begging to pick berries in Michigan, poor black people like those collecting garbage in Memphis, poor white people like those kept in the woods in Appalachia; all poor people.  That is what, there on the levee, he promised to do before we let him go.  That is, to let him try to leave with grace.

“It better be good,” answered Theresa.

“But I’m going first,” added Slavey.

“I know you’ll do well,” said Theresa.

 

Slavey’s trip to Mecca was as much a pilgrimage for him as for the rest of us.  He was amazed at how much one can forget in fifteen centuries, which may seem weird for someone who doesn’t understand immortality.  Most Earth-mortals hardly remember what they read in the newspaper or saw on television yesterday.  If they did, they’d have to admit that most of their attention is to advertisements.

I advised Quincy of that before he ran for president, that and that most humans don’t reason much anyway, for all their pretensions to it and claim to superiority from it.  Most humans are too lazy to read or to think about the pictures they see.  They say they vote on the issues, but they vote a side they pick.  They pick a side that someone tells them matches their feelings.  But they don’t bother to think as they feel.

Slavey went to Mecca to see for himself what had happened there since he’d left in the middle of the previous millennium.  The main thing that caught his attention was the vastness of the Sahara, and he said that made him homesick in many ways.  He said it reminded him of my talk about having been Pip floating alone in the Atlantic and a future president of the United States floating alone in the Pacific.  But I could tell that, much more than for me, his heart felt for the vastness itself, and for his wife of then.

 Like Israel, like the young man Jacob, Slavey as Muhammad had fallen in love with a beautiful daughter of a wealthy man, and served the father’s business.  For Slavey the business was importing and exporting merchandise along the trade-routes across the vast sands as far as Canaan and back.  That’s for what Bob sent him there then, and that’s what he did.  It was an early effort at globalization, toward seeing the breadth of Earth.  The goal was to make one neighborhood.

Nevertheless, as he traveled the sands on his camel in his caravan of merchandise, the thought most in his mind and the feeling most in his heart, as he viewed the vast outstretching sand, was not for the merchandise, and not for Earth.  It was not for the merchant wealth of Earth or for the merchant father.  It was for the lovely daughter.

Maybe it was partly because she was older than he was, and so somewhat a mother to him, as well as his wife.  Maybe it was because she ran her father’s business and made most of the merchandizing decisions anyway, leaving Slavey no need to slave to her father.  But, whatever the reason, his heart was mostly with the daughter.

So, when he first traveled to Jerusalem, he understood why Bob had sent him there.  He found a war-torn city, factions fighting everywhere with no differences in ideas he could understand or see how anyone could understand.  Israelites and Hittites and thisites and thatites, and he couldn’t tell the difference without asking stupid questions.

“Are you a thisite?”

“No, I’m a thatite?”

“What’s the difference?”

“They’re trying to kill us?”

“Why?” Slavey had to ask.

“For the land.  It’s our land.”

“Isn’t there enough for both?”

“Surely.  But it isn’t theirs.”

Slavey talked with many persons of all the factions he could find, and he found but one difference among the factions.  He found but one consideration that made one of the factions different from all the others.

“Why can’t you all share the land?” Slavey asked the people of that faction.

“Because God promised it to us,” all members of it said, without exception.

Being an immortal space-alien, Slavey cared little about the land and less about the merchandise his friends the camels carried on their backs, from Mecca to Khartoum and on to Canaan, and back across the sand he’d come to love.  But he found one other thing common among the factions, that the men of each faction seemed to try to think of women as they thought of cattle.  They thought of camels, cattle helping them, as their wealth.  They thought of others’ lives as their own wealth.

And so they thought of women as their wealth.  They thought of women as wealth, because they thought of life as merchandise, to be bought and sold, or stolen.  All factions also thought of men that way, but the men were bigger and possessed more power to do what they could with anyone they could beat if they couldn’t bamboozle them.  Women, on the other hand, mostly acquiesced as I said in the Tao Te Ching.  And women held the warmth whence they had come.

When Slavey told me about that on his return from that trip, I told him about my notion of quietism and how I had tried to promote in China the understanding that women should be honored for that quiescence and inherent warmth, and that the power of it be respected as water, as water holds most power of Earth life.

“People,” I said, “can splash all day in vain, while rivers carve canyons.”

“I didn’t think of that,” said Slavey.  “So I did something more radical.”

“I’ll bet it was a good one, too,” I said into Slavey’s bespectacled eyes.

“I hope so,” said Slavey.  “I founded a new religion.  On my way back home from a trip, I dropped myself off at a cave I’d used on other trips for storing some things to transport later.  I told my ramrod to take the caravan on home and that I’d come on later.  I told him I had to inventory my stores there.  That was true.  I don’t lie.”

“I know,” I said.  “I wish I could say that.  So tell me the inventory.”

“Well,” said Slavey, “the main piece for me was the one about treating women like merchandise, but I knew I was there to do something about all the killing, also.  I don’t die, but those folks were all worried about dying, or what they think it is.

“Oliver had told me about his ten commandments, and I had a very tough time reconciling that against what any of those thisites and thatites were doing.  So I figured a way might be to give a set of such to another faction, also in the name of Bob.

“I didn’t ignore the fact that that would create another faction.  But I thought that, if I presented Bob to them as an authority for what they were doing, and told them that if they did well as Bob had had Oliver tell the Israelites to do well, they’d have a little pride for themselves and incentive to band together as the Israelites had.

“That way, instead of having all those dog-bites or flying-kites or whatever, they’d have two ites.  There’d be the Israelites and whatever the rest of the people wished to call themselves under Bob.  I was hoping that would be a consolidation of factions down to but two, and I hoped that the next step, into world unity, would be easy.

“But no.  I’m so silly sometimes, maybe always.  I knew what a mess Earthlings had made of what Bob told them himself a half-millennium earlier, and I saw a lot of descendants of his audience then in Jerusalem now paying about as much attention to Oliver’s commandments as any other thisite or thatite did.  But people calling themselves Christians now didn’t seem a power faction there, and I thought they’d turn a cheek.

“Anyway, that’s what I did, and I got out of there, after some quality time with my wife.  Oh, I forgot to tell you that I built into the religion a commandment to protect the sanctity of women, but that didn’t go well either.  Bob said the meek shall inherit the earth, and Earthlings think that means stealing land.  The same with men with women.

“Somehow those Earthlings, who say their ability to reason makes them superior to mosquitoes, find ways to rationalize that meekness means thinking they’re better than other people and so have a right to take anything from them they wish.  They do it by saying they’re meeker to Bob than are the people whose blood they suck.  Weird.”

“Weird alright,” I said.  “They don’t know Bob from the beeswax their ears seem to be full of.  I wonder how long Bob’s going to tolerate that crap, from any faction.  I wonder what the Christians or Paulites are going to do next.  They’ve come a long way in their globalization now.  They’ve been in Rome for a half-millennium.  That’s a big shoe waiting to drop.  And it won’t drop meekly.”

 

Between that conversation and Slavey’s return to Mecca in this millennium, a lot of shoes dropped.  Adherents to Slavey’s new religion consolidated enough factions to take control of the whole of the Holy Land.  The Paulites or Christians spread across Europe and crusaded against Slavey’s new religion’s occupation of Jerusalem.  Slavey had opened a huge big bucket of worms.

The military arm of Slavey’s religion tried to conquer Europe, and Slavey had to come back with Oliver to try do something about that, at Roncesvalles.  The Paulists sold out to military and monetary might and sanctioned terrible torture of anyone who disagreed with them, especially in Portugal and Spain.  They called what they did there inquisitions, and then they did what they did to Theresa.

This is what they did to Theresa, in the words of an Earthling there, watching the fire that time:  “She was soon dead and her clothes all burned.  Then the fire was raked back and her naked body shown to all the people and all the secrets that could or should belong to a woman, to take away any doubts from the people’s minds.  When they had stared long enough at her dead body bound to the stake, the executioner got a big fire going again around her poor carcass, which was soon burned, both flesh and bone reduced to ashes.”

Remarkable also is that the raconteur of this was for the prosecution.  Notable also is this, which the executioner said after:  “Once in the fire she cried out more than six times ‘Jesus!’ and especially in her last breath she cried with a strong voice ‘Jesus!’ so that everyone present could hear it.  Almost all wept with pity.”

And the end of that life of hers on Earth was slow.  The fire-tenders had been told to keep the fire distant enough to make her death as difficult as possible.  We must understand that the distance between Christianity and Paulism is much more vast than water and sand.  We must understand that, to keep coming back.

 

When Slavey toured the Holy Land and the Arab nations in the nineteen-sixties time of trial in the United States, he was surprised at what the religion he had founded had become.  He had founded a religion of pride, which the people there had channeled into revenge, and on into greed.  But now it seemed turning back the other way.

All the people Muslims were calling the people of the Book had ignored Bob’s commandment to keep their alters simple, to use no tools to build them and not to raise them higher than the level of the land on which they ordinarily walked.  The Paulists were the worst offenders, vying throughout Europe to see who could build the tallest cathedral and tooling alter icons more gaudy than any golden calf.  But the Muslims also tooled temples with pride and, while carefully complying with the commandment not to develop images of anything Bob had already created, they placed priests in high minarets to pray to Bob and the people.  And Joshuites, while never raising another golden calf, plainly worshiped the gold of it and curdled the milk of kindness in self-pity.

Jews and Christians worshipped mammon so intensely that they often pointed to Islamic poverty as though it indicated unworthiness.  So, Slavey was happy to find Islamic commerce very basic, a system of exchange hardly different from the times of his traveling in his camels’ caravans across the sands to the Holy Land.  But, more, he found lovely that the vindictiveness and greed he’d combated with Oliver at Roncesvalles was now here hardly visible, even in poems and myth.  It was largely gone.

There was, of course, the oil.  But the nations’ governments sold those dead bugs as a commodity at the best price they could get.  If political manipulation entered the negotiation, it wasn’t with a plan to spread Islam around the world as the Saracens had tried to do through Spain to France, but simply to get the best price.  How the non-Islamic nations vied against each other for oil or power or anything else was not the business of the Islamic nations.  They were simply merchants, like Muhammad.

“But democracy gives you more right than the Israelis,” said Slavey now to a man selling Coca Cola in the old city of Jerusalem.  “I mean to all this land, from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv and back across the Jordan.   I mean democracy, the right of the majority to rule.  Muslims are the majority here, all across the land.”

“What about you?” asked the Coca Cola salesman.  “Your swarthy color is not the majority in your land.  Do you think that all those people of your color, who are fighting and dying and being imprisoned as criminals in your country, merely for requesting the same rights as the majority, have no right to complain?”

Possibly the most beautiful thing about Jerusalem is how brightly the sun shines there, on the brown bleached stones of the city’s streets and walls and on the twisting black branches of the olive trees outside, and setting their dark shiny fruit aglow.  And Slavey’s reason was stopped now there, stopped deader than Lev looking into the river reconsidering his preachings in War and Peace.  The old Coca Cola salesman sold a few more Coca Colas.  Slavey aroused himself, but weakly.

“Then you’re saying,” he asked, “that the Israelis have a right to take your land?”

“I’m saying,” said the Coca Cola salesman, “that I am in Jerusalem selling Coca Cola, and my family needs no more than it gets from my selling this stuff your country likes to drink to rot its teeth.  I could tell these American tourists with their children what this stuff will do to their teeth and their children’s teeth, but I’m sure they already know it, and it’s not my job.

“So, with the permission I beg you to honor, I shall return to doing my job, to keep my family happy.  However, I wish everyone well, and so I’ll offer you a way to better answer.  I’ll tell you how to find my brother.

“He tends a garden on the hill across the way.”
 

 

 

Chapter 10

Pilgrim’s Progress

   

Slavey told me he often found his conversations in this holy land to suggest that he and his counter-converser were the ancient mariner and the wedding guest.  But he said he never could tell whether his role was that of the mariner or that of the guest, and so now he simply waited for the rest of what this Coca Cola salesman would condescend or ascend to say to him in that bright dusty sunlight.

“Outside the Lyons Gate,” said the Coca Cola salesman, “on the near side of the Mount of Olives, above the Garden of Gethsemane, is a terraced garden.  It’s the Prayer Garden, named such because the Roman Catholic Church says Christ prayed there, for a little peace alone before his crucifixion.  My brother is the gardener.

“It’s about a fifteen-minute walk, leisurely in the weather we almost always have for such walks here.  Sit beneath an olive-tree, on the stones supporting one of the terraces, with a clear view of the sky and the walls of this city.  If my brother is not too busy talking with other tourists, he will come to you and stand before you, gazing across the lower garden.  If you ask him a question, he will sit beside you and answer all your questions until you seem to him to be ready to leave.  Then he will rise and drop his walking-stick.  Rise from the stone yourself and pick it up.  Hand it to him with a little money.  My brother sells answers.  I sell Coca Cola.”

So Slavey bade the man farewell.  He kissed his wrinkled hand and left the city.  The first tribulation of that fifteen-minute walk was getting across the busy thoroughfare between the gate and the mountain.  The next might have been finding the right road up the hill, but Slavey picked the first one he saw, trusting the Coca Cola salesman.  Surely he’d have given more direction, were it necessary.  So the next tribulation was an offer of guidance from a younger salesman.

The road was narrow, steep and nowhere straight, but its walls banked up on both its sides with no side streets aside in Slavey’s sight, and so he figured he could find his way alone.  However, as soon as he entered the precincts of those weed-grown gray-stone walls, he saw a boy leaning beside a gate on his right.  The boy elbowed himself perhaps reluctantly away from the wall and strode down the road, scowling to Slavey.  Upon reaching him, he smiled and stopped.

“What do you want to see?” he asked, standing squarely in front of Slavey in the middle of the little road, smiling like the best of shopkeepers as his fingers moved, ready to point a way.

“Just here,” he said, not waiting for answer and waving his left hand toward the wall on Slavey’s right, “is the Garden of Gethsemane.  I can show you there the oldest olive-tree in all this land.  It’s huge.

“Just there,” he said, still not waiting for an answer from Slavey, who now was grinning as broadly as the boy, “is the tomb of Mary.  It is very beautiful and full of beautiful paintings, and very dark and cool on this hot day.”

“Let me see,” said Slavey, considering his options carefully.  “I would very much like to see the Garden of Gethsemane, if only you will promise not to cut off an ear of mine.  I have use for both, if you can tell me the secrets of the place.”

“Not a chance,” said the boy, “either of cutting off your ear or of telling you the secrets of the place.  Think what either would do to my tip.”

In the Garden, the boy indeed showed Slavey an obviously very old olive-tree, with its trunk wider than Slavey’s height, and Slavey was quite tall.  But the garden did not much impress Slavey, as he found it much more pruned and small than he’d expected.  So Slavey walked quickly around and out, as the boy tried to tell him things.

“And the tomb of Mary,” said the boy, as he followed Slavey out to the street.  “It’s just here, just a little way back down, there across the road.  Everyone wishes to see the tomb of Mary.  Everyone knows who Mary is.  You’ll find it beautiful.”

So Slavey followed the boy but baulked at the entrance.  Looking down through the stone-framed entrance, into the darkness below the gray stones, he felt the coolness.  He remembered the air-conditioning in Saint Louis Cathedral in New Orleans and feeling that God lived there, not Bob but something surreal, beyond his experience.

“No,” said Slavey.  “Maybe some other time.  Thank you very much.”

He handed the boy probably more shekels than such salesmen ordinarily received in a week, and he walked on up the hill.  He was grateful to the boy for not trying to sell him something more.  Around a bend, he turned into the prayer-garden.

 

The garden was exactly as the Coca Cola salesman had led him to expect, the olive-trees and the stone-blocked terraces, the view to the city and the sky.  He strolled the terrace on the level of the gate and stopped where he felt halfway to the far end of the garden.  He sat on the stones, looked across to the city, and up to the sky.  He sort of prayed a little in his wait.  But he didn’t wait long.

He’d seen no other humans in the garden as he entered, but within a few minutes an old man strode slowly along the terrace, toward him from the direction of the further end.  The old man walked with a stick in his left hand, touching the ground each time his left foot did.  Slavey had never figured the mechanics of walking-sticks, how they helped, nor now.  He didn’t try to figure anything.

The old man, garbed as Slavey understood more endemic to Afghanistan than here, in a loose turban partly trailing down his back and in other loose swaths of cloth, and rubber sandals in a style more common to leather, did not wait for a question before sitting.  So Slavey did not begin the conversation.

“I’ve been to the United States,” said the man.

“Yeah, me too,” said Slavey.

“I live up there now,” said the old man, pointing.

He waved his hand, palm up further up the hill on the other side of the road.  Slavey looked and saw some houses set into the hillside, with laundry hanging drying on balconies.  Slavey wondered in which house the old man lived, and he wondered how many people lived there with him, wife and children, grandchildren, parents, who.  But he didn’t ask.

 “I know more about America than you do,” said the old man, leaning his chin on his untooled stick as his loose sleeves surrounded it and his turban shaded his crown from the sun, but not his eyes.  “You talk about democracy, about how the people have the right to rule, and you use that notion to excuse depriving others of the right to just live quietly.  You say you care for common concern, but you care more about thinking your car is better than your neighbor’s.  If your neighbor disagrees, you call him stupid.”

“I don’t own a car,” said Slavey, “and I’d like to ask you about you.”

“Nice prelude,” answered the old man.  “But I was telling you about me, about how I feel.  You don’t call your neighbors stupid to their faces, but to other neighbors you also think are stupid.  You do that because you think you’re being smart, by fooling your neighbors, by being sneaky.  Do you know what a Kasbah is?

“The mythical den of thieves?”  Slavey tried to answer.

“They’re mythical alright,” said the old man, “but far from fictional.  They were fortified cities and now are tourist markets, wherein lie and lay your myth and the response of Islam to people like you.  If you’re wondering where I learned enough English grammar to use words like ‘wherein’, the answer is Harvard University.  I’m a Ph.D., in English literature, and I live up there.  Up there.”

Again he waved his right hand, palm up at the houses on the hillside.

“You,” he said, “being an American, think I’m bitter being a Ph.D. and living in a house without electric or gas washing or drying machines.  My family likes spending time washing, and my family likes the smell of the clothes drying on the line, and the feel of the air blowing through them.  It’s better than electric air-conditioning.

“And it’s better than sitting around thinking up ways to lie and steal, like our people do in the Kasbahs, like your people do everywhere.  The Kasbahs, and all the breaking of promises and other lying at which Islamic people have become competent, are nothing except retaliation against the silliness of western culture.

“Did I say silliness?  Of course I said silliness!  You Americans and Germans and French think, when your neighbors buy Cadillacs or Mercedes or Citroens, that they’re picking on you if your only car is a Ford or a Volkswagen or a Renault or a Fiat.  Ford built the car for all people, and ‘Volkswagen’ means people’s vehicle.

“Am I preaching?  Of course I’m preaching!  You people are so crazy that, when someone catches you in your silliness, shows you yourselves how crazy you are, you just think up some way to be stupider.  And that’s the whole reason for the problems here now between Islam and Judaism.  You westerners, you Americans, you people.

“You mean because we supported the Zionists after World War II,” said Slavey.

“Zionists, schmionists!” replied the doctor of English.  “Are all you Americans totally deaf?  You instigated the problem by teaching all those nice Semitic Jews who emigrated to New York to be like the rest of you people.  After Joshua and David died of old age, the biggest problem we had here in this holy land was Europeans.

“Think about it!  Joshua himself told the Israelites to cool it, to stop all that warring and greed and start paying more attention to the Ten Commandments, and they did mostly until David started fighting everyone, including other Israelites.  But, after David bit the dust, things were relatively calm here until the Romans started trying to take over everything.  Colonization!  You know?

“I’m not a Ph.D. for nothing!  Sure, David’s baby-chopping temple-building son caused some problems, but it wasn’t like David’s effecting fratricide or Joshua’s or Hitler’s efforts at genocide.  Romans tried to turn the whole wide world into Egypt, and everyone in it that wasn’t Roman, and a lot of other Romans as well, into what Israel became in Egypt.

“From then on, until this century, world history has been mostly Europeans fighting over the rest of the world.  Thank Allah for Muhammad, coming along and giving us enough pride to resist all that crap, or enough unity, whatever.  If Charles hadn’t hammered back Suleiman at Tours, we might have world peace now.

“But, instead, we had to wait for inevitable economics to bankrupt the over-reaching nations, and that took until this last century of this last millennium, after Christ.  No, I’m not a Christian, but those Europeans claim to be, while they do all that coveting of their neighbors’ Saabs.  So what were you going to ask me?”

By this time, Slavey was ready to go, back to his hotel and get some sleep.  His eyebrows were starting to strain the insides of his brain, and he was having a tough time looking at all at the wondrous deep blue sky there, or so much as remembering it was there, or where he was.  But he managed to remember the Coca Cola salesman.

“Oh,” he said.  “I almost forgot.  Thanks for reminding me.”

The old man sat still, scowling over the Garden of Gethsemane.

“How do you feel about the Jews taking common ground to build a separate nation for themselves?  I mean, true democracy gives them no right, since Muslims are more populous across the land than are Jews, don’t you think?”

The old man didn’t take a second to think about that then.

“I already told you,” he answered.  “They won the right to call it theirs.  So, if they wish to call it theirs, they can.  But it isn’t theirs, and it isn’t ours, or yours.  The land, all Earth, a gift from God, belongs to all of us, to you and to me and to them.  ‘This land is your land; this land is my land,’ says an American song.  I don’t care who calls it theirs, as long as we all can feel at home.  I live up there, and that’s my home.  That’s all.

Parfois,” said the gardener, “il ne faut pas cultiver notre jardin.

The old man rose from the stones and dropped his stick on the gravel path of the terrace.  Slavey rose from the stones and stooped to pick up the stick, and he handed it back to the old man.  He bowed and walked out of the garden, forgetting about the money.  But back at his hotel he remembered.

 

Next morning, he returned to the inclining winding road and saw again the boy leaning against the stones.  He waved, and the boy smiled and waved, as Slavey turned from the road to look at the place the boy had said was Mary’s tomb.  Near the bottom of the cold stone steps, someone in some sort of ceremonial vestments sat at a tiny table, reading by candlelight.  The person didn’t look up, and Slavey walked around alone, being the only other person there he saw.  In the dim light and chill air, he looked at the lovely renaissance paintings and the older relics.  One stone coffin had more candles burning near it than the others.  Slavey stood before it, for several quiet minutes.

He turned in the chill air and returned to the steps, reluctant to leave.  The person in the ceremonial vestments reading looked up a little before Slavey passed.  Slavey nodded and received a nod in return.

He walked up the road and reentered the prayer-garden.  He did not see the old man, but he saw a family having a picnic on the terrace above where he had sat.  They were a man and a woman and several children, and one of the children looked at Slavey and laughed.  Slavey felt that they all were laughing at him.

“Have you seen the old man?” he asked them.

“What?” asked the man, not smiling.

“Have you seen the gardener?” Slavey answered.

“No,” said the man, and looked away.

Slavey turned back to the gate and stopped where he had sat with the old man.  He took from a pocket some shekels of change and stacked the coins neatly on a stone beside steps to the next higher terrace.  He left the garden and returned to his hotel, and next day he was in Egypt.  And he heard the same there, everywhere.

“Let them keep that land,” the Muslims said, in a refrain with no music, just a humility and rationale of heart that Slavey had never heard from anyone in America or throughout the universe, not even from Theresa.  “They won it.  But let us keep our homes.”

Slavey kept his schedule.  He was there to see how Islam was doing, and kept his according plans.  From Egypt, he moved on to Saudi Arabia, where he dined with princes and trod again his path to Mecca, across the vast and empty sand.  Praying with thousands at the Kaba, he had never felt more wholly the brotherhood of man, and he knew that was his message to take back, to America.

But the message to him came more strongly at the Sphinx.  At that monument, once to riches and now to riddles, built by slaves for the regime that had enslaved the Israelites, he tried to take the Sphinx’s point of view, literally.  He stood, his back to the stone eyes, and stared across the seeming endless sands, and asked himself one more time, what anything was all about, anywhere, ever.

“Sand,” was the answer.  “Let them keep that land.”

“So,” came the answer.  “Help us have our homes.”

And so, when Slavey returned to the United States of America, he preached the error of his segregationist ways.  He preached the brotherhood and sisterhood of all people and paid a public visit to Oliver and proclaimed agreement with peace.  Next, he made a speech at the Renaissance convention center in Detroit, proclaimed the need for rebirth in the motor city of America.  He proselytized brotherhood and sisterhood and neighborliness.  He was tempted to sing Woody Guthrie songs.  He spoke in parables and riddles.  He rambled like brambles.

“What are left and right,” he asked, “other than opposite directions of one person?  If one person facing west stands behind another facing west, left is south for both as right is north.  If the two turn and face together east, north is left with south right, for both of them.  If they face each other, they join their opposite directions.  That is what we need to do, face each other.  But first we need to face ourselves.”

“Amen,” murmured parishioners of Oliver, as they did in their Baptist and African Methodist Episcopal churches when they felt the heart of the preacher beaming through.  That is, when they felt the heart of the preacher warming through, whether or not they figured what he said, and Slavey went on more obliquely.

“Let’s talk about bigotry,” he said.  “Not racism, but bigotry itself, of which racism is a horrible part but yet but a part, a symptom and not the whole disease.  Let’s talk about some other forms of bigotry, the rotting whole disease devouring us all.

“Following our civil war that threatened the union of these states, Democrats were the party of the segregated South, and Republicans the party of Lincoln.  Now the opposite is true, according to some on either side.  How did that come about?

“Some people define freedom of choice as depriving infants of any choice ever, and many of those people decry killing killers.  How is killing the guilty worse than killing the innocent, and how did that turnabout of rationality come about?

“We call those people the liberal left, and we call those who disagree with them the religious right, and many of those who disagree with the right to choose to kill babies do call themselves Christians and call their disagreement belief in the right to life but at the same time believe in killing not only killers but also anyone who disagrees with them, whether or not they would ever kill, however they are otherwise, at all.

“How can people calling themselves Christians preach killing, for revenge or anything else?  Besides the questions of turning the other cheek and forgiving one’s neighbor seven-times-seven times, how can people claiming to believe in the Gospel of the lord Jesus christ preach the refusal of the possibility of repentance that only life can give, that only life can give?  Can you tell me how the dead can repent?

“Often so-called psychologists of the liberal left support vengeance by calling it closure.  Aside from the question of how having the guilt of another death on one’s conscience in one’s life can make one a more happy or peaceful person, how can killing in return for killing be called closure?  How do most women feel after an abortion, and can two wrongs make a right?  Can killing close killing?  If not, close what?

“What has this to do with bigotry?  Bigotry is taking sides, and it ranges from partisanship to my-religion-right-or-wrong, and it ends in decent people making worse than fools of themselves, just to stay on the side they’ve chosen, despite themselves.

“One of many relevant facts is that the political terms ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ both refer to the same thing.  ‘Liberal’ refers to the ideals of this nation’s Declaration of Independence.  I mean ‘liberal’ refers to what conservatives are trying to conserve.

“But maybe I’m missing something.  I know I’m no political scientist.  In grade school, even before I dropped out of school because my favorite teacher told me I’d never be a lawyer because niggers don’t know nothing about anything that takes brains, I couldn’t understand the difference between a republic and a democracy, something about Greeks and Romans.  Well, I’m an African American, and I still don’t understand the difference between a Republican and a Democrat, except that they disagree.  So maybe a psychologist can teach me better.  But, for now, I’m saying how I see it.

“And, my brothers and sisters, whether or not you choose to admit the fact that that’s what you are besides being my neighbors whom I love, if you think this African American has wigged too far out already, consider this as well, if you please.

“Hitler wasn’t beastly.  No beast could or would do what he did.  No species on Earth kills its own species for reasons.  Humans claim to be better than beasts because they have the capability of reasoning.  Well, if so, I have to ask, when are they going to start using that capability for something better than trying to excuse bigotry?

“Most of you know I’m a Muslim.  Most of you also know I recently returned from a visit to what Muslims and Christians and Jews call the Holy Land.  A few of you, certainly not many of you, also know that I spent a little time sitting on a rock at the top of the Mount of Beatitudes, where Jesus is supposed to have preached a sermon.

“Jesus was beastly, and he said so.  He asked us to look at the fact that sparrows don’t take thought for tomorrow, but rather just accept the gifts of God.  He also asked us to consider the lilies of the field and see how beautiful they are without going out and trying to make themselves grand in some kind of ceremonial vestments, Gucci or otherwise.  So maybe Jesus was less than a beast.  Maybe he was a vegetable.

“Well, be that whatever, as I sat at the top of that mountain, on a rock beneath three Eucalyptus trees, breathing the fragrance of the lilies of that field, enjoying their splendor and the view of the Sea of Galilee beneath the mist, I looked aside and saw two lizards necking on a rock in the sunlight.  And oh such smiles on their faces there.

“I, however, scowled in my realization that all around me, there in that holy land and across the sand to Mecca and across the sea to Detroit, humans were sitting around on upholstered chairs reasoning how to find ways to hate each other.  So, uneducated as this nigger is, I had to kind of wish I were a beast, like those lizards.

"But, next I’d wish I were a lily, and there’d be no end of the pride I’d manage to muster with my human reason, and I might end up leading the lizards or the lilies in a jihad or a crusade against other lizards or lilies.  Worse, I might make long speeches, trying to justify my newfound bigotry.  So I’ll get to the present point.

“Israelites slaughtered Philistines after the death of Moses.  Christians slaughtered Muslims and Jews in Jerusalem in the Crusades.  Hitler, under the sign of a similarly broken cross, killed six million Jews, anywhere he could.

“Most people calling themselves Christians rightly have compassion for the enslavement of Israel in Egypt, but following the teachings of Jesus would have them compassionate with a few other events of history as well.

“In the name of God, Israel tried to kill all the Canaanites for their land.  When some of the Canaanites took some of that land back, Europeans killed more of them and called the killing crusading, in the name of Christ’s cross.

“English people calling themselves Christians, to be free from other Europeans trying to keep them from being the sort of Christians they wished to be, came to this continent and instituted the effective genocide of its natives.

“We call Hitler’s trying to do that sort of thing to the children of Israel in this century the Holocaust!  But all those events were holocausts, and mostly in the name of Christ and all in contradiction to his teachings and the commandments God gave Moses for us!  When will it ever end?  How long, O Lord?

“Now the Israeli Canaanites are trying to do it again to the Palestinian Canaanites, and again in the name of religion.  Worse, when the Palestinians try to defend themselves, the Israelis retaliate and get sympathy from the descendents of the perpetrators of the North American holocaust.

“Muslims say that there is no God but God and that Muhammad is his prophet.  I say that there is no God but God, and that every honest loving person is his prophet.  And I say that every dishonest hateful greedy person is his enemy, and every bigot is a hateful liar, since hearts are better than names.

“That’s the point.  Let’s try a parable.  Then we’re out of here.

“People are professional painters.  They profess whatever makes them feel good, and then they paint it in abstractions to make it look good, and paint is like the people themselves.  White is supposed to have no pigment and is used to symbolize purity, and black is supposed to have all pigments and is said by many to be beautiful, and yet no paint is entirely either, or neither.

“Death turns people pale.  Just before their dark graves.   But no humans are black or white.  They’re all the same colors as the earth.  Caucasoid or Negroid, desert sand or peat moss, it’s all some shade of rusty brown, and the rust is the same.  In people, it’s the oxidation of iron in blood, yes iron in blood.  But Rustoleum in our begging bigot minds.

“If Moses and the Ten Commandments are Jewish, few people calling themselves Jews today are Jewish, since most of them preach killing Palestinians and stealing their land.  If Jesus and the Beatitudes are Christian, few people calling themselves Christian today are Christian, since most of them preach killing Palestinians and stealing their land.

“But most people on these sides of the oceans don’t much care about those on those sides of the oceans.  Most people don’t look so far, being too preoccupied getting better stuff than that of nearer neighbors, and most people will do anything they can get away with toward that narrow end, and call it getting even.

“Unpainted truth is that vengeance is a vicious endless cycle that began with the first bigot, the first person who thought himself different and therefore more deserving than a neighbor, and so tried to diminish his neighbor for his own gain, thereby selling his soul.  Unpainted truth is that most of us ignore our souls.

“I am an African American, an African and an American.  I am your friend and your brother, and you are my friend and my brother or sister.  Like it or not, that’s how it is on God’s green Earth, beneath the seas, across the sands.

“And, sooner or later, that plain unvarnished truth shall make us free.

“All of us, you and me.”

 

That was Slavey’s grand finale, and Oliver’s grand finale was coming soon, since now he had been nominated for the Nobel peace-prize, as we knew he would be after Montgomery and Birmingham and Selma, and maybe more loudly to this world the hundred-thousand-person march.  The hetero-phobic pervert in charge of the United States' federal police was futilely trying to defame them both, and soon his futility would turn his tactics to killing both Slavey and Oliver.

Lev would later explore homelessness in the western half of Earth, and he found bigotry also there in professional treatment of the homeless, and he found it and the competitive decadence in persons purporting to provide help for the homeless in the cradle of liberty, in the name of the love of Saint Clare of Assisi.  Lev, in his old Slavic sadness, wished to know how pallid folks can be.

And Theresa witnessed a piece of that, long after Slavey and Oliver accepted death for the cause at the hands of instruments of American law enforcement.  They, Lev and Theresa, found it in the next millennium.

Rather than enforcement of unalienable common law.

Rather than common sense, compassion.

Rather than sympathy.

Dissonant.


 

 

 

 

Chapter 11

Remembrance of Times Past

 

We, of course, with our alien powers, could have stopped Mr. Goober, but we had our reasons to let him go ahead, as you know.  So we delayed his perverted process just long enough to let Oliver make his peace speech in Oslo and for us to have a little going-away party, which Lev offered to cater.

I told Lev about the transitional emphasis we were planning, as he and I played a little teeter-totter on a west Texas oil-well pump.  Lev had become a James Dean fan, and he wanted to ride one as Dean had in the movie Giant, rocking away against the sky.  Lev had a thing about anything giant, and west Texas reminded him of the Russian steppes.  So I asked him out to Houston, and we took a little drive.  I mean little by Texas standards.  We drove west.

“A going-away party,” offered Lev.  “And I know just the place.”

“No ballet,” I begged.  “And nothing intellectual, if you please.”

“No problem,” said Lev.  “I found this great little bar in New Mexico.  It’s in a ghost-town I visited a few years ago, while I was looking around to find some interesting ghosts to hang out with.  A lot of interesting ghosts hang out in New Orleans, but I was trying to widen my horizons.”

The creaking and clunking of the oil-pump made more sense to me than Lev, but I listened to this old dead sage of Russia, as fairly as I could.

“It’s a gold-mining ghost-town, but it’s in cattle country.  And it’s famous because Billy the Kid used to hang out there, or hide out there, whatever.  Some guy from Michigan named Penrod owns it.  It used to be a drugstore.”

“Wait a minute,” I said, while the well-pump waited for nothing.  “Now it’s a saloon, but it used to be a drugstore?  What’s up with that?”

“I already explained,” said Lev.  “It’s a ghost town.  Nothing there is the same as it was.  That Penrod guy came out from Michigan because he was tired of being an electrical-contractor but had made enough money at it to buy the drugstore, which wasn’t even a drugstore by that time, and he turned it into a saloon.  He calls it the White Oaks Saloon, because the name of the ghost-town is White Oaks, and it used to have a pretty happy-go-lucky saloon named that, before the town went bust.  It was a fancy establishment, even had a sign out front saying ‘no scum allowed’.  But that didn’t stop Billy the Kid from going in there.  It was also a whorehouse.”

I looked across the Texas plain and thought of Slavey’s desert.

“Okay,” I agreed.  “New Mexico.  Volcano cores.  What else?”

“The grass is brown, like here,” said Lev.  “But it isn’t as flat.  It’s cattle country, and the name of the county seat is Carrizozo.  That’s Spanish for great grass, but the cattle have to do a little hill-climbing to get to all that great grass, and there’s a plain of burnt dirt, called the valley of fires, just outside Carrizozo.  I thought some of you people might have done that in some sort of invasion.  But White Oaks is up in the hills.”

“Is it near Roswell?” I asked.  “We have conventions there from time to time.”

“About eighty miles,” answered Lev.  “But that’s not why I think it’d be a great place for a party for us.  That Penrod character moved out there because he wanted to be a gold-miner, but he still goes back to Michigan for fruit-harvests, to work with the illegal aliens.  Yeah, I thought you’d find that funny, but he has a Mexican wife named Mary.  Together they throw a great party, and the drugstore has a big backroom.”

“A big backroom?”  I asked.  “What do they do there, deal drugs?”

“Maybe sometimes,” said Lev.  “But mostly, except for the pool-table they put there, they don’t use it other than for Saturday nights.  Saturday nights, they have a big ball, with the best musicians from all around the county.  They call it a dance, but it reminds me a lot of old times in Petrograd.  Except that they wear Stetsons instead of plumes.  Their boots are almost as pointed.”

I looked across the pump-axle at Lev, rising and falling with the brown grass behind him alternating with the bright blue sky, in my view then and there.  He was homesick, and I could tell that, and there was no way I could refuse him this party.  And a good time with friends is a good time anywhere.  But he interrupted my musing.

“Besides,” he said, “the county’s named for Abraham Lincoln.”

So it was on.  I took the proposal to Theresa and Slavey in Detroit and to Oliver in Atlanta.  They all loved the thought, although they ordinarily found our conventions in Roswell boring.  Theresa loved to ride horses, if the horses seemed to like giving her a ride, and Oliver and Slavey had teamed their spirits with horses at Roncesvalles, a lot of them dying with them there.  It promised to be a good and reminiscent time.

“You know,” said Theresa, “I bet Norma Jean would like to come.”

“Yeah!” whooped Oliver.  “How about James Dean?  He’s dead, too!”

When I took Oliver’s suggestion back to Theresa, she and Slavey demurred.

“He’d be hitting on Norma or Lev,” said Theresa.  “Not the right focus.”

“Yeah,” agreed Slavey.  “She’s waiting for that sailor Jimmy.”

“And Lev's going back to his wife,” agreed Oliver.

So we limited our guest-list to just the four of us and Lev and Norma.  We thought about inviting Billy the Kid, but none of us knew where in hell he was.  Bob was still trying to make up his mind whether to forgive the killing for the statement he made for the little ranchers of the county.  Meanwhile, Billy was just wandering hither and yon.

So I borrowed a gooney-bird, a Douglas DC-3 from another friend, from Gene Autry.  Gene owned the Angels, a baseball team in the city of angels, and he may be the only human who regrets my not taking my baseball-playing into the major leagues after Yale.  For me, Gene was king of the cowboys, not that Roy Rogers guy who stuffed his horse and put the poor creature in a museum.  So Gene and I were friends, and he loaned me his plane for our party.  And I love the friendly flying.  It beats bombing.

“How can you own a baseball team?” I asked Gene once.

“We pay the players very well,” he answered, shrugging.

I didn’t quite understand the logic of that, but I understood the logic of the wild blue yonder, as I and Theresa and Slavey and Oliver flew out of Atlanta for Carrizozo, in the aircraft I’d borrowed from the composer of “Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer”.  Lev was going to pick up Norma, however dead people travel, and meet us there.  For the four of us, it was a long flight, and so we sang.  “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”, “All the Way”, whatever.  We were loosening up a little.  It was a vacation.

 

We landed lurching on the one runway of the Lincoln County Airport, or the Carrizozo Municipal Airport, as the name was in dispute.  The lurching was partly from my rustiness, having flown nothing physical since bailing out twenty years earlier, and partly from the gravel of the strip.  The county’s main airport was in Ruidoso, forty miles away in ski-country, beyond the old county-seat.  Hardly anyone landed here.

Ruidoso had not only skiing but also a thoroughbred horseracing-track, and an Apache reservation with gambling in a 400-room luxury-hotel the Apaches called the Inn of the Mountain Gods.  Carrizozo had a railhead, which is how it became the county seat, instead of Lincoln up in the Capitan Mountains.  Billy the Kid had escaped from the county courthouse and jail in Lincoln.  Now things were different.

A coughing guy met us on the runway and told us where to park the plane.  He gave us coffee in paper cups in the little building that served as the terminal.  He told us his name, but I’ve forgotten it somehow, while remembering that he told us he was a retired United States Marine lieutenant-colonel and had emphysema.

“How’s business?” I asked him.  “Who flies in here?”

“I’m not sure you want to know,” said the colonel.

“I guess you must have flown in the Marines.”

“Fighters,” he answered.

“Bombers,” I said.

The colonel politely answered nothing, and I felt a little ashamed of not having been a fighter-pilot, in such close combat with those little Earthling planes.

“I was only in the Army Air Corps in World War II,” I told him.

“I was in Korea,” he answered.  “Had to leave because of this.”

He hit his chest with his right fist and coughed.  He took a deep breath.

“I’m not sure we planned this trip very well,” I said, thinking I knew why he wasn’t asking us anything.  “It doesn’t look like you have a rental-car agency here.  I feel stupid mentioning it.  Any suggestions?”

The coughing colonel looked me eye to eye.  He looked at my darker companions and offered a smile of kindness to Theresa, and nodded to her understanding eyes.  He started to scratch his belly but stopped in embarrassment, and then he scratched his head instead.  He straightened his face and looked out the big windows to the airstrip and the rolling grass.  Plate-glass windows on that side made the building enough of a terminal.

“That pickup over there,” he said, indicating to his right with a thumb, while still looking forward across the airfield, toward nothing but the flat strip and the rolling beyond.  “I don’t use it much, because I’ve got the van out front.  Fifty bucks a week, if you want it.  Sorry I can’t do better.  Or . . . .”

Whatever he was going to offer as an alternative, he stopped speaking when I pulled pocket-cash and handed him a hundred.  One thing I’d learned from all that time in Texas was how to be polite there.  New Mexico seemed to have the same values.

“Appreciate it,” I said.  “That’ll do fine. We’ll bring it back in a few days.”

The coughing colonel nodded, took the hundred-dollar-bill from my hand, handed me a couple of keys, and walked us to the truck.  We retrieved a little luggage from Gene’s gooney-bird and tossed it into the back of the truck, and we turned our faces to the sky a moment.  Then, at last, the coughing colonel asked us something, submitted a query to these strangers landed in his airport in a gooney-bird.

“Real estate?” he asked.  “Looking around?  Thinking of staying?”

I wondered what exactly might be cranking in his emphysemic brain.  I wondered what an emphysemic former Marine fighter-pilot might think of a white-man and a black woman and two black men flying into a nearly abandoned airstrip in a perfectly-maintained antique aircraft.  But I could see in his eyes that he meant no ill will, that instead he was welcoming us.  Succinctness is very nice sometimes.

“Nah,” I said.  “Just a party with some friends.  But I love the view.”

“Yeah,” said the coughing colonel.  “Forever is a nice way to look.”

I jumped into the driver seat of the F-100 pickup, and Theresa leaped more spryly onto the passenger end of the vinyl bench-seat.  Slavey and Oliver piled into the bed, and Slavey parked his butt in the wheel of a spare tire lying flat back there, while Oliver sat on the bed-bottom and leaned his back on a side, crossing the ankles of his legs stretched out.  If you’ve ever felt the freedom of a pickup truck, you know what I mean.

The coughing colonel bade us have fun.  And we headed up the straight highway, past the valley of the fires, into Carrizozo.  At the crossroads giving that tiny town its reason to exist, we pulled into its only motel, the Four Seasons.  The clerk had no questions for us wayfarers, and she checked us into two double-doubles, rooms with two double-beds in each.  Theresa and I took one, and Slavey and Oliver took the other.

I’ve always loved the balance we find, the four of us.  Theresa is the best of us and I the least, and so whenever any fork in the road required our temporarily parting in two, Theresa and I take one path and Slavey and Oliver the other, and I know why and love the reason.  Theresa is the best of us and I the least, and so we join for the outside, while Slavey and Oliver take the middle.  Because Lev had known a lot of generals, I asked him once about that strategy.

“First,” he answered.  “You wouldn’t do that if you didn’t work best together in that pairing.  Second, I could point out that it spreads the sharing best, which is your essential question.  Third, I could call it an appropriate military analogy.  Most, remember that best is first.  Do they ever let you drive?”

“All the time,” I answered.

“You have good friends,” he said.

“What about Lev and Norma Jean?” I asked as we opened our adjoining rooms.

“Oh, yeah,” said Slavey.

“Go ask,” added Oliver.

 

So I threw my bag into the room and walked back to the motel office, where I found the clerk or owner or whatever looking down at paper as she stood at the desk.  With the chimes tacked to the door still ringing in my human ears, I walked to the desk and put my human hands on it.  The clerk, who may have been the mayor, looked up.

“I wonder,” I said, “if some friends of ours have checked in.”

“Some people are in the room next to yours,” she said, shrugging.

With my human reason, I discerned that this motel had few guests, none except the four of us and whoever was in the room on the opposite side of mine and Theresa’s from Slavey’s and Oliver’s.  But I didn’t assume that those other folks were Lev and Norma Jean.  I waited for more answer, no talk needed.

“Mm,” said the proprietor or whatever, “They said that, if anyone asked about them, I should tell you they’re in the bar across the street.  I don’t know why they called it a bar.  It’s a very nice restaurant.”

“Yah hah!” I said.  “Thank you very much!”

The person nodded and grinned and returned to her paperwork.  I returned to my friends, who were all now gathered in Theresa’s and my room wondering what to do next in this vast vista of tourism.  Theresa was standing on the dresser, reciting Slavey’s Renaissance convention-center speech, as Slavey and Oliver applauded and laughed.  It set the right tone for this internal outing.

“They’re at the bar across the street,” I said.

Theresa jumped down from the dresser, and Slavey and Oliver went next door and looked into mirrors and grabbed their wallets and shut the door and came back.  Theresa just waited, leaning with her butt on the dresser.

“Yubba dubba doo!” said Oliver.  “It’s party time!”

You can’t blame a freedom-fighter for having fun once in a while.  So we all locked up and walked across the street to another place called the Four Seasons, this one a restaurant and bar with a drive-up take-out window.  Inside, Norma looked like she’d lived there all her life, chitchatting with a half-dozen natives all at the same time, while Lev sat sulkily talking to one.  Norma stood at the jukebox, while Lev sat at the bar.

Theresa and Slavey and Oliver sat in a booth, while I went to the bar to get us something to drink.  The place was quite crowded this late afternoon, and I had to squeeze between Lev and one of the many men there wearing cowboy hats.  I put a hand on Lev’s shoulder, as I waited for the Mexican bartender.

“No problem,” said Lev’s conversation-partner, as Lev turned to me.

“Oh, ho!” said Lev.  “You finally made it. Where in hell have you been?”

“Not in hell,” I answered.  “We’ve been flying from Atlanta in a gooney-bird.”

I grabbed some beers, went to the jukebox and got a hug and a tearful smile from Norma Jean, and returned to the booth where the rest were still trying to catch up on details of their movement here this time until now.  Not feeling like sitting, I leaned against one of the bench-backs and looked around.  Quickly I became a little angry at Lev.  I knew too many people in this place.

One after another, as I scanned the faces of those Latino and Indian native Americans and white cowboys of this still wild west, I saw shaved white faces beneath white hats, faces I’d seen before.  By this time, in this trip here, I had nearly a score of years of experience with CIA operatives, and I’d taken training courses in intelligence with operatives of other agencies.  This looked like a class-reunion.

Now I knew why the coughing colonel had expressed uncertainty that I wished to know about the airport traffic.  I had never seen so many agents of the United States Drug Enforcement Agency in one place at the same time, except in classrooms.  I was as appalled as a spaceperson can get, wondering what all these agents for enforcement could be doing here.  I walked back to the bar, past the people nodding at me.

“No problem,” again said the man on Lev’s right.

“Long time, no see,” said the man on his left, to me.

“What in hell is going on here?” asked I of Lev.

“Oh,” said Lev.  “I thought you might want to know about this.  This little bar or restaurant, or whatever the local Chamber of Commerce or chapter of the Masons wants to call it, is the main world club of DEA defectors.  When they wish to make more money, a mighty mess of them come traipsing here.  Opportunities abound you know, and this is a funnel.  Didn’t your Skull and Bones pals tell you that?”

“It isn’t my specialty,” I answered.  “And I was hoping for a vacation.”

“Well,” said Lev, suddenly seeming as angry as I was.  “It should be your specialty.  Nothing is more disruptive of your mission here on Earth than the drugs these salivating suckers conjure up.  Anyway, these salivating suckers don’t like music.  So we won’t see them up the hill.  Russia was never as bad as this.”

I knew he was right about the salivating suckers and their threat to our mission, and I saw no reason to try to explain to him that elimination of bigotry and hypocrisy would also eliminate that, because I knew he wouldn’t see the simplicity of original approach, because he was an Earthling, ghost or not.  So I nodded and smiled, patted his old Slavic back, and returned to Theresa.  Lev was a good man.

 

Later I looked further into the situation there, and learned much from it.  That little airfield with its one gravel strip was an international airport.  Most of the traffic about which the coughing colonel said he didn’t think I wanted to know came from Mexico, and much of it came from Columbia.  The colonel flagged off no flights and asked no question, and I also learned of a body-shop in that tiny town, for changing the colors of cars coming in from Mexico, before sending them back.

Later that knowledge gave me an idea, of how to use double agents to fight fire with fire in my own way.  For example, I drew in Manuel Noriega so congenially that he gave me a cigarette boat, one of the speedboats smugglers use for running cigars and worse from Cuba to the United States, but that didn’t keep me from locking him low beneath the Miami federal courthouse.  I did that as I’d used my oil connections to end the OPEC crisis in the seventies, while people said I was in cahoots.

I also enjoyed that cigarette boat on later vacations, but now I was on a different kind of vacation, and I never gave a drug-dealer a ride in that boat.  In other efforts, more toward my personal mission, I did give some OPEC sheiks rides in it, but I didn’t tell them who gave me the boat or how I got it.  After setting Noriega as an example for the general public and for any subterfuge-agents to see, I left policing the DEA mostly to my friends in the CIA.  But those are other stories.

 

By now, Norma had joined the others in the booth, and she was laughing and joking as if she were alive.  Theresa and Oliver and Slavey were joking with her and laughing with tears in their human eyes, and soon Lev followed the cheer.  He left his conversation and joined us in the booth.

“Any room for an old Slav,” he asked.

“You’re a pain in the butt,” I answered.

“Let me tell you a story,” he replied.

“I don’t know about that,” I had to answer.  “The only story of yours I know about is more than a thousand pages long in fine print, in any language.  We’re here for a vacation, not to listen to some old Russian ghost sob about his sense of purgatory.”

“This story isn’t about purgatory,” Lev answered.  “Or maybe it is, but it’s about here, about the little ghost-town where we’re going, and I’ll try to keep it short.”

“I like stories,” said Norma Jean, “although they all seem bittersweet.”

“Tell your story,” said Theresa.  “I love your stories, long or short.”

“Story, story, story!” chanted Slavey and Oliver, grinning around.

“Okay, okay,” said Lev, and we focused out the noise around.

“Once upon a time,” Lev began, “in a place not far away or long ago, lived a beautiful princess.  She was beautiful as the sun, but she didn’t know how beautiful she was, and so she wished to be a cowgirl.  So, the first handsome cowboy who came along and saw her beauty easily swept her off her feet, and took her for his bride.

“Soon, however, she learned that being a cowgirl was not the same as being a cowboy, and quite quickly she found herself nursing a child and washing dishes and otherwise doing what any other human wife is maybe-too-often required to do to maintain her tolerance in society.  That while her cowboy rode the range as she wished to.

 “Her cowboy husband rode the range only to care for the cattle and to fix the fences, and he loved his cowgirl as much as any man loves a woman, but she could never return the favor, in her despair.  Her despair was that she had realized too late that it was not a cowgirl that she wished to be.  She wished much more to be a cowboy.

“She wanted the freedom of the range, the pride of work that came with wiping sweat from her brow with her bandanna, the power of destiny to make her own way.  So, while she loved her child and had no antipathy toward her husband, she seized every opportunity to be out of her house, to be out in commerce, move up in society.

“Commerce and society, in the town nearest their ranch, the small ghost-town of White Oaks, New Mexico, was sparse.  The county seat was but a few miles down the winding road from White Oaks and several-times the size of White Oaks, but even it had but one grocery-store.  The princess didn’t wish for Saks Fifth Avenue, but she wanted something.  She could hardly name it, but she sought it.

“So, beyond taking her son to buy groceries, a visit she always enjoyed with great smiles, her freedom was most at the White Oaks Saloon.  Of all her desires she could name, she found her way to satisfy but two, and both were with her neighbors.  One was by the commerce of her grocery-shopping, the other at the saloon.  One was sharing monetary wealth, the other just plain fun.  The second was more for herself. 

“Or so she may have felt.  At one of the weekly dances there, the blonde princess met a wild Mexican she felt to be more princely than her husband.  She and the Mexican danced that night, and they danced every Saturday night for weeks after, and the cowgirl’s husband thought little of it, because he loved his princess, and they could afford groceries, and had a lovely child.  Life was right and easy.

“So, while the neighbors were not surprised when the cowgirl left her husband and her son to ride fences like a cowboy with the wild Mexican, the husband was devastated.  He sat moping at home, staring out the screen-door of their little house, wondering what to do.  So the moping turned to smoldering that threatened to combust.”

Fear now lurked in our alien hearts, as Lev looked around, at us.


 

 

 

 

Chapter 12

The Time Machine

 

Norma Jean sat quietly, as Lev continued, with this story.

“After a few days,” he said, “it did combust, externally.  The princess ran out of clean laundry and asked her prince to go to the house of her husband and child and pick up some of her clothes.  When the wild Mexican knocked on the screen-door, the husband shot him in an eye with a .38-caliber Smith and Wesson revolver, no peacemaker.  The bullet went through the Mexican’s head and out the back of his neck.

            “Of course the husband went to jail, but the wild Mexican didn’t die.  The husband was convicted of attempted murder, and the Mexican only lost an eye, and a lot of mobility.  The husband remained demobilized in a prison cell for years, but the Mexican was walking with a cane in less than one year.  No, I’m not kidding.

            “The last time I was up there at the saloon, the princess was tending bar.  She wasn’t wearing the Stetson I’d seen her wear before, and her hair was cut in a pageboy haircut, a little like Jackie Fits used to wear, not a cowboy-cut at all.  But the wild Mexican was right there with her, sitting by the woodstove that heats the place.

            “His cane leaned in the corner, and his shot-out eye was loosely shut.  He didn’t recognize me, but the princess looked up and named my poison, although I hadn’t been there for nearly a year.  The first time I’d seen the wild Mexican, he was standing next to the princess.  I’d bowed to kiss her cheek, but didn’t do it.  A glare from the prince stopped me dead.  Dead in my tracks in that ghost town.

            “Of course I was already dead.  But I didn’t see any point in making a point of it there, in that good-time-fiddling dancehall-Saturday-night.  Then there was no reason to pick a fight with anyone, with either of those miserable happy creatures.  I don’t know what happened to the husband, but I’m sure the others are together, happy as can be.

            “It’s a strange place, that ghost-town.  You’ll see more tonight, and you’ll see more tomorrow.  Sundays, the best musicians of this cattle county gather in the front room of the saloon and try each other happily, while Penrod and Mary brew up some road-kill stew on that potbelly stove.  Some things never get as dead as I.”

            The four of us tried not to look at Norma Jean.  We were afraid this story of Lev’s might turn her into a blubbering idiot.  But, after a few seconds, I didn’t hear any blubbering, and so I braved a look.  Norma was staring into the table as I had seen Lev stare into the river.  But I heard no sobs, saw no tears on her cheeks.

            Oliver and Slavey, looking also at the table, still didn’t look at her.  But Theresa was looking at her little blonde bowed head, and Theresa’s thumbs were resting ready on top of her index fingers, as her hands rested ready on the table.  She was ready at an instant to take Norma’s little blonde head into her hands and hold her.

            But Norma lifted her little blonde head and smiled around at all of us.

            “Bittersweet,” she said.  “Bittersweet.  That’s what I said.”

            Now Lev was looking sadly down, into the depths of his own river.

            But he perked to help perk Norma.

 

            “That guy I was talking to at the bar told me he’s a treasure-hunter,” said Lev, looking up, at Norma and then at me.  “He says there’s drug-money buried in these brown hills.  He told me that the newspaper here has reported a person who died in prison but never turned over any money, and he said there are other events like that, that never hit a newspaper.  He says he thinks some of the money might still be in the hills.”

            “What kind of treasure-hunter is that?” asked Norma.  “Aren’t treasure-hunters supposed to be looking for gold doubloons sunk to the bottom of the ocean?”

            “That’s what I wondered,” said Lev.  “I could understand someone wishing to do something like that, for the adventure.  I don’t understand why someone would want to hang around with a bunch of drug-dealers just to find out where to dig up some money.”

            “Neither do I,” said Oliver.  “It seems to me that people might wish to have some reason to live, some kind of productive purpose for their lives.”

            “Or just for beauty,” added Slavey, “as Norma said.”

            “Yes,” answered Theresa.  “It’s like religion.  People try to make religion into ritual or rules and totally ignore the sense of their own hearts that the only worthy reason to live is to make others happy, and that that’s the way to find happiness for oneself.  Bob told this world that in his second commandment, saying it’s like the first one.  But people ignore both commandments, by leaving out the second.  Anyway, being happy for one’s neighbor beats the hell out of drugs.  Does he have any kids?”

            “No,” said Lev.  “He said he just travels around with his wife in a camper-truck.”

            “Maybe,” suggested Theresa, “he just likes to be alone with his wife.”

            “He invited me to play golf with him tomorrow,” answered Lev.

            “And no one’s with him here,” I added.  “Are you going?”

            “Hell, no,” said Lev.  “We’ve got better things to do than beat a ball across some brown grass.  Tomorrow’s Sunday, the jam-session up at White Oaks, and we’d better get back to the motel and change, if we’re going to the dance tonight.”

 

            “I’m hungry,” said Norma Jean.  “Can we eat first?  I haven’t been hungry since I made that stupid choice in ’62.  I can hardly wait to see if a ghost can enjoy a meal like I did when I was alive on Earth every day.”

            “It wasn’t an entirely stupid choice,” said Theresa.  “It was time for you to find new friends.  So how do you like these other boys?”

            “Lev’s a little ghastly,” answered Norma.  “But I didn’t know boys could be so much like girls.  Do you guys know if I’ll ever see Jimmy again?”

            “You’ll see him again,” said Theresa.

            “Good,” replied Norma, smiling again.  “But I’m still hungry.  What do they have here?  Do they have a menu?  Is it any good, Lev?”

            “I know a better place,” said Lev, without a moment’s pause.  “Just up the street, a little Mexican diner, the only other restaurant in town.”

            “As long as I don’t have to wait tables,” said Norma Jean.

            So we made the trek across the street and piled into the pickup, the girls in front with lucky me driving again and the other boys in the back with a cooler Lev had filled with beer.  The pickup had no seatbelts!  But what had we to fear?

            The diner was just what a diner is, a long counter with stools, and booths opposite.  We sat in one of the booths and ate tacos and cheese and chopped lettuce and beans like any self-respecting Mexican, and Norma didn’t bother wiping her face until she was finished eating.  Then she looked around and grinned.

            “Boy that was good,” she said.

            Back at the motel, we duded up in cowboy clothes, to give the natives something to make fun of, and we headed up the hill.  Lev insisted on driving, and the girls insisted on riding in the back.  I insisted on riding in the back, with them.  They laughed more than the others.  Dead or immortal, girls.  Yes!

            I was sorry Beatrice wasn’t with us, but I didn’t know how to explain to her what we were about, and I didn’t think it would make her happier, since she was already happy, with her life.  So I thought of her and sent her little brain-mail pulses to make her think of me and smile.  We space-creatures can do that.

            Up at White Oaks, past the winding road bordered with barbed-wire fence and dry brown grass and cattle grazing, we piled out of the pickup in dusk.  The last horse was leaving, the last cowboy who had stopped there during the day for a beer and neglected to go back to work, anyway on that one day.

            Lev tipped his hat to the departing cowboy and swaggered into the saloon, his spurs jingling.  Penrod was sitting at the table nearest the stove, playing poker with some cowboys, using nickels as chips.

            “Uh oh,” said Penrod.  “Look what just blew into Dodge.”

            “Gi’ me a beer,” said Lev, sticking his thumbs in his belt-loops.

            “You know where it is,” said Penrod.  “Mary ain’t got time for you.”

            “I can’t see the cooler,” said Lev.  “Where’d you get that bar?”

            Lev had told me that the saloon didn’t have a bar, that it still had the old wooden drugstore counter like the one in the movie The Grapes of Wrath, from which the kids had gotten the candy through the kindness of the caretaker of a roadside grocery.

            “Oh, somewhere,” said Penrod.  “I stole it from one of these empty old buildings.  I got tired of having people sit on the bar instead of at the bar, and so I got a bar they could belly up to.  Who are those beautiful women you’ve got with you?”

            “Friends,” said Lev, turning back to look at his entourage, his thumbs still in his belt-loops.  “Norma and Theresa.  The guys are competition, but not much competition.  I think they’re city-slickers.  You know how that goes.  How are you, Mary?”

            By this time, beautiful little Mexican Mary had brought him a beer.

            “What do your friends want?” she asked.

            “The same,” said all of us in unison.

            “Easy to please,” said Mary.

            “Let me do it,” said Norma Jean.

            Norma walked around the end of the bar to the cooler and opened it.  With her two cool hands, she scooped four cans of Coors out of the ice and set them on the bar all at once, then popped the tops, two at a time.

            “There you go, boys,” she said.  “You too, Theresa.”

            She didn’t look around for glasses, as Mary had not given Lev a glass, and none were in sight, anyway.  Mary wiped her hands on a towel, as though she had done the work herself, and smiled at Norma and Lev.

            “How do we pay?” asked Norma, as we grabbed our beers from the bar.

            “If you do it yourself,” said little Mary, “just leave the money on the cooler, a buck a beer.  But Johnny’ll be here any minute to tend that for the dance.  Then we can relax and have a good time.”

            And we did.  The princess and the wild Mexican were not there, but the place was full of people young and old.  No one shot pool, because none of the sticks had tips on them, and no one felt like dealing with the challenge of that.  A cowboy named Curtis led a band of his own with his violin, and everybody danced.

            Lev invented a Russian version of a Mexican hat dance, and he and Norma took turns endangering their hats with the nonsense of it.  Lev started to tell someone how much at home he felt in pointed-toed boots, but he remembered just in time that his explanation would have required mentioning his experience with the hussars of the previous century.  Norma Jean felt no need to explain anything.

            Missing Beatrice, I didn’t dance much, but Slavey and Oliver danced with every woman and girl in the place.  They invaded the bandstand, the little plywood platform at the back of the dancehall, and sang a duet of Kris Kristofferson’s song “Help Me Make It Through the Night.”  After all, it was their wake.

            But, come midnight, Norma and Lev closed the festivities.  Lev borrowed Curtis’s fiddle and played “The Way We Were”, as Norma Jean sang it.  After that, everyone was ready to go home and go to sleep, for whatever reason.  Perchance to dream.

            Going back to the motel, I drove again.  And the girls sat up front with me again, as the other boys shivered in the back.  Of course immortals and ghosts don’t need to shiver, but they wished to show their respect, their chivalry anyway.  The girls rode cozy in the front, as the push-button radio played whatever they wished.

 

             In the morning, late as though we needed dreams of our own, we rolled out and refilled at the little Mexican diner.  I drove again, with Slavey and Oliver in the front with me, as Lev and the girls sat in the back enjoying the reason the state of New Mexico pictures the sun on its flag.  Up the hill at White Oaks, we found no horses outside as it was Sunday, and inside we found people playing guitars and singing.

            Not many, a few in the front, not in the back in the dancehall, but this was a different sort of celebration.  Curtis wasn’t there, but his girlfriend was, and she was the only person there we’d seen the night before.  We nodded around and grabbed some beers and left the dollars on the cooler.  We listened, leaning at the bar, until a pause.

            “Who owns that big brick house?” I asked, referring to a mansion on the slope behind the saloon.  I had a hunch it was residue of the gold-boom days and so might have some residual stories the people there enjoyed.

            “Nobody knows,” said one of the women there.  “We just all live there.  Maybe a ghost owns it.  This is a ghost town, you know.  Maybe we own it.”

            “Where’s Penrod?” I asked.

             “Looking for gold,” said a young man sitting at the table between the stove and the musicians, not wearing a Stetson or cowboy boots, and in clothes clearly needed laundering, taking a slurp from his can of beer.

            “Where’s Mary?” I asked.

            “Home, I guess,” said the woman who had reminded me that this was a ghost-town.  “Who knows?  They trust us!  What are you all doing up here on a Sunday afternoon?  Well, this guy’s a pretty good fiddler, I hear.”

            Until now, Curtis’s girlfriend’s guitar had remained in its case.  Now she took it out with some songs typed on paper with no musical staff but with chords noted here and there.  She laid the paper back in the guitar-case and began to strum and sing, looking down into the case at the paper.  She showed no certainty of anything.

            “What happened to what’s-his-name?” asked Lev, after the young woman ended the song.  “The guy from El Paso.”

 

            Lev had told me another story, about a rancher from El Paso who had come to Lincoln County hoping for the promise of the name of Carrizozo, with a young woman.  He had told me that the man seemed very angry and alone, while the woman seemed alone but not so angry, and maybe wished with all her heart to make music.

            “The first time I talked with the man,” had said Lev, “was the first time I was up at White Oaks, and I told him I hadn’t ridden a horse in a while.  It was a weekday evening, and he told me that his was out front and that I could ride it, all I wanted.

            “I had no intention of riding the man’s horse, but I went outside in the interest of politeness and curiosity to look at the horse, but no horse was in sight.  So I stood a moment in the setting sunlight and went inside and told him so.

            “'Are you calling me a liar?' said the man.

            “I said simply that I was simply saying that I saw no horse outside, but the man continued in his profession that I had insulted him, and others there said I might do well not to hang around right then, and I’m too old for dueling now, anyway.  I hope I always was, and so I left, for then.  But I kept coming back.

            “I liked this crazy place, and I liked that crazy man with his senseless logic.  So, after a few weeks of tiptoeing around him, I walked straight up to him and apologized, although I didn’t know for what.  He took my offered hand, and we became regular conversationalists.  We drank one night at his home.

            “That was when I got the hint of what the trouble was.  He had suggested that I come to his little house-trailer on the rangeland he was hoping to develop, saying he thought I was too drunk to drive back down the hill.  On arrival, I asked him where his girlfriend was.  He told me she was out, no explanation.”

             Lev had told that story also without explanation, as he tells all his stories with little explanation, letting narration stand on its own merit.  I considered the possibility that the man had invited Lev up because he was homosexual, and that his wife was with another man because she wasn’t.  But I let the narrative stand on its merit.

            I mean in my mind, and now I was hearing Lev ask the woman where the man was, and Lev was letting the narration turn into its own narrative.  Lev was a master of stories, and now I knew how he did it, by seeing them everywhere.

 

            “He went back to El Paso,” said the young woman.  “I’m with Curtis now.  Curtis is teaching me music.  Curtis loves me, and I’m writing a song about it.  I love it up here in this ghost town, and I’m happy here with my friends.  Everyone here understands me.”

            Norma didn’t say a word, and the saloon suddenly dimmed.  The door to the road was open, and the afternoon New Mexico sun had shined through it on everyone, until that moment.  The cloud that darkened the door was a man in a black hat, limping on a cane.  Behind him in the sunlight was a blonde woman in no hat, in sandals.

            “Hey, Lev,” said the man.

            He stopped his steps and replaced his right hand with his left hand on the cane and patted a shoulder of Lev’s.  Then he switched his hands again and limped on back to the stove, where he sat on a chair set alone beside it.

            “Penrod asked us to come by and keep an eye on the place,” said the blonde woman, now the only woman in the bar without a Stetson.  “Hey, Lev.  Nice to see you again.  Are these people friends of yours?”

            Lev answered neither of them but asked the wild Mexican how he was doing.

            “Good, thanks,” said the Mexican, “Gwen takes good care of me.”

            “Hey, Lev,” said a boy now coming in from the sunlight.

            “Hey,” said Lev, with a smile very bright for him.

            “Oh!” said Lev suddenly.  “How’s Harlan?”

            He looked at the Mexican and the blonde and the boy and at everyone else, and no one there seemed to react, except the princess.  She smiled at the sudden brightness of Lev’s question, but as suddenly frowned, then smiled again.

            “He’s still up there,” she said.  “Why don’t you go get him.  I haven’t seen him in a couple of days.  Go get him away from those chickens.  Yes.  Go.”

 

            Lev hadn’t told me about anyone named Harlan, but we took the princess’s momentum and piled in the pickup and headed further up the hill, past the blacktop onto gravel and off up a one-lane dirt-road, as high as we could go on land there.  We stopped in front of a ramshackle ranch-house with chickens running all around, and Lev leaped out of the driver seat and stared around.

            “Maybe he’s in his shop,” he said, and walked into a shed a few yards from the house, while a man walked from the house with a big grin on his face but an aura of just having been awakened, and no indication of any surprise.

            “I hope they don’t kill any horses this year,” he said as Lev emerged from his unsuccessful foray into the shed.  “I know how you feel about that.  Who are your friends?”

            “And this is Harlan,” said Lev after introducing us, “the greatest saddle-maker on Earth.  Ask the chickens, but don’t ask the power-company.  He does alright without electricity.”

            “You’re showing us too many people too fast,” said Norma Jean.  “Maybe that’s why no one can remember the names of the characters in your books.  What’s that about killing horses?”

            “It’s a tourist-attraction here,” said Harlan.  “People care more about sports than they do about history.  So every year we replicate a pony-express run with a race to White Oaks from Capitan.”

            “And,” said Lev, “most years at least one horse is run to death.  I’ve seen my share of cavalry charges, and I always feel sadder for the horses than for the humans, because the humans think it up.”

            “But you make saddles to ride them,” said Norma Jean.

            “I think it’s more comfortable for them,” answered Harlan.

            “But why ride them?  Why dominate them?”

            “They’re my friends!  It’s playing together!”

            “Anyway,” added Harlan, “I like to make saddles, and I think of it as reincarnating the cattle, and I don’t ride much anymore.  My kids do, but I don’t.”

            “Where are your kids?” asked Theresa.  “They don’t live up here, do they?”

            “All over,” said Harlan.  “They’ve grown and gone their way.”

            “But they follow in their father’s footsteps,” said Lev.

            “Well,” said Harlan, “my son’s a trainer, and my daughter’s a jockey.”

            “The winningest woman jockey in the world,” said Lev.

            “Can we see some of your saddles?” asked Norma Jean.

            “Sure, if you’d like,” said Harlan.  “Come into my shop.”

            We followed him into the shed, and he showed us saddles of many shapes and styles and different kinds of leather.  Some were plain English, and some were intricately tooled American, and one of different colors.  That one, green and red and unfinished on a work-rack, was smaller than the rest.

            “It’s a gift for a friend’s daughter,” said Harlan as Norma noticed it.

            “Do you sell many?” asked Norma.

            “Not many,” said Harlan.  “But I get enough for one to last awhile.”

            “What’s that book?” asked Norma.

            Slavey and Oliver weren’t paying much attention, but they caught Lev’s look when Norma asked that question, and they caught Harlan’s pause.  No one spoke, but Harlan picked up the book, a large leather-bound photograph-album tooled like some of his saddles.  He moved it to the center of his workbench and opened it and began to turn the pages, pointing at the photographs and speaking as he did.

            The photographs, hundreds of them, were of him and Kim Novak, the beautiful blonde movie-star who had played so well a witch in the movie Bell, Book and Candle.  None of what he said made much sense to the rest of us, all being about him and her and what she liked, and he didn’t say they were friends.  None of the rest of us said a word until he closed the book and set it back aside, and we stepped from the shed.

            “What’s this stuff?” asked Theresa, peering into an earthenware pot on a bench beside the door to the shed.

            “It’s what I glue the saddles with,” said Harlan.  “I make it myself, out of sweet-potatoes.”

 

            We bade the chickens goodbye and took Harlan down to the saloon.  After he got a big hug from Gwen, we drank a few more beers and listened to the drug-addicts play some more music, and bade farewell to all of them.

            “Always a pleasure to see you again, sir,” said Harlan to Lev.

            With that, we immortals and ghosts left that ghost-town.  Lev returned to New Orleans, and Norma Jean returned to Heaven.  I flew Theresa back to Detroit and Oliver back to Atlanta, and Slavey on to Harlem for his grand finale.  I returned the gooney-bird to Gene in the city named for angels and took a commercial flight back to Houston.  I was very happy to see Beatrice again, and Quincy and Ben.

            At the motel, before we split for other parts, we asked each other why we had made that trip, and why people do drugs and drink alcohol.  We immortals got nothing from it, and Norma and Lev had no ready recollection, but we each had an answer ready.

            “Boredom,” said Oliver.

            “For fun,” said Slavey.

            “To be braver than usual,” said Lev.

            “To be kinder than usual,” said Norma.

            “To forgive ourselves our weaknesses,” said I.

            “To forgive others’ also,” said Theresa.

            But what could we know, we immortals and ghosts?


 

 

 

 

Chapter 13

Brave New World

 

            Slavey, while enjoying the cheer that often goes with beer, kept it out of his religion because it interferes with serious work, and Slavey was nearly always very serious.  His next task was to gather in Harlem his supporters, those defected from the Nation of Islam for the reasons he had, and those wishing to join in a more peaceful organization.  There they planned their new approach.

            “First,” he said.  “I have to make peace with Oliver.”

            So he flew to Atlanta with his Earthling wife and daughters and visited Oliver and Rachel and their children in their home.  Rachel welcomed them, and the meeting began a long friendship between her and Slavey’s wife, a friendship they both would greatly need before the year was over.

            Back in Harlem, Slavey planned a speech at the Apollo Theater, a place Theresa thought important for its integration of African and American music.  In the speech, he would announce his reconciliation with Oliver and announce the formation of his new organization, to displace the corruption of the Nation of Islam.

            Meanwhile, K. Buggen Goober was using his infiltration into the Nation of Islam to instigate vengeance, under the guise of protecting the corruption from becoming widely known enough to threaten the corrupt leaders’ wealth.  Slavey’s austere lifestyle and new preachings of the brotherhood of man were nothing to Goober.

            “Look at all those daughters,” said Buggen to someone no one knew anything about.  “Don’t those people know how to do anything besides progenitate, breed?  Why does he have a problem with his Nation of Islam brother being another wallowing rabbit?  Well, it doesn’t matter, because we’ll buy one to kill the other.”

            Of course we also had our people about whom no one knew anything, and we opened all the doors through which Buggen and the Nation of Islam fell, right down to funneling their operatives into the Apollo Theater that night.  As Slavey began to speak, the Buggen-Nation operatives created confusion in the audience.

            “Get your hand out of my pocket,” said one of them, leaping from his chair.

            As many in the audience focused their care on that incident, other operatives pulled from their coward clothing an array of weaponry ranging from pistols to shotguns.  As Slavey’s wife and daughters watched him from the front row, the assassins opened fire and put a dozen bullets through his Earthling body, and a shotgun blast through his heart.  He died on the stage, covered with his blood, and his wife.

            “He had come to me for reconciliation,” said Oliver next day.  “He was a sweet man.  The world will mourn his passing, as I will mourn him.  He always did the best he knew, and no one can do better than that.  He died a martyr to our cause.  To freedom.”

            Goober set up some defenseless people to take the fall to satisfy the public in general, and he set up a trial much like the trials of the Scottsboro boys, to be sure the fall-guys fell within the law.  The Scottsboro boys had not been executed and had been released, though never acquitted.  The trial of these newer victims stood forever as it ended.  It stands frozen in infamy, like a tomb for justice.

            A few weeks after the killing in the theatre, Oliver and his family and many of his friends were on an airplane headed for Oslo, where he would accept the Nobel Peace-prize for the work he and Slavey had done for Earth this trip, from Theresa’s beginning on that bus.  At least he had all Earth’s attention, as he spoke this time.

            He stood in Europe’s Viking land like a sailor home from the sea, and he spoke of whence all that conquering had come.  But, more, he spoke of whence it could go, if everyone would only wish and work, stand up for what we all have in our hearts.

 

            “I have a dream,” said Oliver, with both hands on that worldwide stand.

            “I have a dream of Heaven, and it is not a large dream.  It is a dream of small words and small people, but it is a dream of great spirit.  It is a dream of friends of mine dead and friends of mine who shall live forever.  I know that they shall live forever, for they are friends of yours as well as mine.

            “I have a dream of a small woman, a small black woman sitting on a bus, sitting there in a small part of a big bus, a part of that bus set aside for small black women and small black men so that a great white whale trying to swallow that small place need not feel as small as it must feel in its paleness.  Such small people in this large world are called a minority.  What a large word for such small people.

            “I am educated in divinity, another large word for many small dreams.  But I will not speak of the expansiveness of theology to you today.  I am a black member of the colorful minority of a great nation still writhing in the belly of the great white whale.  And maybe that’s right for democracy, but I will not quote such grand Greek words to you today in this small snowy nation across a sea from that nation.

            “Instead, I will quote a white-man for the smallness of his words and the grandness of his spirit and the simplicity of his soul, and I will quote two great friends I know will live forever for the smallness of their words and the grandness of their spirit and the simplicity of their souls.  The white man was a rich white boy who, in the first of what we call world wars on Earth, drove an ambulance on soil foreign to him.

            “People that Harvard boy’s nation told him were friends caught him driving that ambulance trying to save lives, and they put him into a prison.  I’ve been imprisoned, jailed many times though never for driving an ambulance, and I find striking that Harvard poet’s description of his prison.  His jailers did not throw him into a small box of steel bars and concrete, but into a large room full of many kinds of people.  If you like big words, you might call it a microcosm.  The poet called it an enormous room.

            “And that white-boy Harvard poet did not complain.  He mentioned the stink and the sickness, and the rottenness and paucity of the food, but he did not complain.  Instead, in a little book he wrote about that large room, he wrote about the people there and not about how poor they were.  He wrote about the grandness of their spirit and the simplicity of their souls.  And later he wrote only poems of love, never a discouraging word.  In one, to my soul, he says the most important thing.  And so I quote this line of his to you:

            “‘Nobody, not even the rain, has such small hands.’

            “The poem is not a song of war, or politics or stuff like that.  It is the same song as the song of the wise king Solomon, who for all the grandeur of his temple found most beautiful the small roe breast of his lover which he wished to feed among the lilies, and nothing has changed in the hearts of men and women, in the land of Solomon or anywhere else.  For all the war in the Holy Land still, Tel Aviv has more bridal-gown shops per capita than has any other city on Earth.

            “So, when I think of that small woman black but comely on that bus in Alabama, I do not think of how much larger the bus was than she or how much larger the white whale was than she or how much larger the world where that bus might carry her was than she or how much larger the world of the white whale was than the world she might have traveled then and might travel now.  Instead, I think that she was black, but comely.  Then I forget that she was black.

            “That is why we’re here on earth, to find each other comely.  We are not here to kill each other or covet each other’s land, but to find each other comely and to propagate that comeliness in simple homes of honor for those homes and the homes of our neighbors.  As I said, I won’t argue complexities or rationalities of theology here today, but I will say that both the Bible and the Koran have enough words large and small to excuse anything we wish to do.  So, why not look into our own hearts first, and carry forth in our own small hands what we find best there?

            “I, for one, suspect that what each, every one of us humans on Earth, will find there is the Beatitudes and the Ten Commandments and the first and second great commandments of Jesus Christ, without our having ever read the Bible.  Call it inherent conscience, or some bigger set of words, if you wish.  Or just call it love.

            “Grand spirit, simple soul, small words.  Here is my second quotation.

            “When that white-whale bus-driver threatened to have that small and black and comely woman imprisoned for simply refraining from giving up that small evening space on Earth to the white whale, she held in her small and black and comely hands her purse nearly depleted from buying Christmas gifts that first day of December that year now lo those many years ago, and she said:  ‘You may do that.’

            “Grand spirit, simple soul, small words!  You may do what?

            “You may arrest me.  You may push us around.  You may set your dogs on our children.  You may send your cavalry to trample us as we peacefully try to cross a bridge to freedom.  You may imprison us by the thousands and keep our voices out of the law.  But there is one thing you may not do, and cannot do.  One thing.

            “You cannot diminish the grandness of our spirit, the simplicity of our souls, our love.  So, with those small words, with her small hands lightly clutching that nearly empty purse, that black and comely woman lit a light for all humanity, maybe even gave a bit of a tan to the white whale, to help him be a little normal.

            “Third quotation.  I cannot imagine our movement without the peace of Mrs. Parks or the war of the Panthers.  Both have been necessary, Mrs. Parks to show us the comeliness of her small hands, and the Panthers to show us the bloodiness of the alternative, the freezing rain spring showers should wash away.  Another person black and comely preached the war much of his life, and late in that life of his on Earth was reconciled to the peace, and was killed at once thereafter.  Was he killed for reconciling, for seeking final peace?  If not, for what?

            “I suggest that he was killed, blown down and off this earth by bullets and shotgun blasts in Harlem, the capital of African America, for small words.  Mr. Shabazz, after returning from a trip to Africa, during which he discovered that Islam in its homeland also had more room for brotherhood and sisterhood than what he’d been calling the Nation of Islam did in the United States of America, said so.  So what did he say that was so bad, so unforgivable that he passed all seven-times-seven chances of redemption, of Christian forgiveness?

            “‘By any means necessary,’ is what he said.

“Grand spirit, simple soul, small words.  Did anyone ask what he meant by that?  Did anyone ask him what he meant by that?  Did anyone look up in a dictionary what he meant by that?  Did anyone consider, carefully in their hearts and minds, what might be necessary?  My dear departed friend Mr. Shabazz did, all his short and happy life on Earth!  He always asked, for all of us.

“How many humans know that that friend of ours, whether or not we recognize what a friend he was to all of us, spent more than half of a decade of his young life in the prison where Sacco and Vanzetti were executed for being called anarchists, charges as trumped up as the charges against them of crimes against the law, as trumped up as the charges against the Scottsboro boys?

“How many humans, for all their claims to identify humanity with compassion and reason, know who Sacco and Vanzetti were or who the Scottsboro boys were?  How many recognize the name Shabazz or know that he left behind a wife and daughters?  How many honor those daughters’ small roe breasts, in that falling freezing rain?  How many honor their own breasts?

“What means are necessary?  The peace of Gandhi in India before the internal strife that ended his life on this earth?  The creation of a homeland for the survivors of Hitler’s holocaust, the oppression of those whose homes were on that land before, the suicidal terror of their retaliation?  The peace of Mrs. Parks or the war of the Panthers?  What means are necessary?

“Well, call me a romantic, but I wonder how the tyrannical imperialism of Rome before or after being called holy got mixed up in that small word ‘holy’.  The means necessary is that all of us admit what we find in our hearts, and so carry it forth in each of our small hands through any rain hard or cold that falls on us, across the sands of Arabia and the mountains of America, from sea to shining sea, all over Earth, to Heaven.

“I have a dream, a dream of grand spirit and simple souls, a dream of small hands carrying water, like Rachel’s at the well.  I have a dream of spring rain raising lilies in the fields of battle, quenching the thirst for the silliness humanity calls things like glory and superiority.  I have a dream of righteousness, clear and quenching as a mountain stream, humanity’s first and last fair thirst.

            “And when that dream comes true, and I say when, not if.  When that small and simple dream comes true on Earth, justice.  I am saying the two syllables of that simple word ‘justice’.  Freedom, justice for all, shall roll down like water.”

 

            With that last phrase, Oliver leaned close to the microphone and fairly shouted.  The feedback from that sixties Earth sound-system screamed throughout the hall, maybe damaging some of the Nobel committee’s hearing aids.  But Nobel speeches are records for history, and anyone who didn’t understand can look it up and try again.

            So Oliver had done what he could do this trip and said what he had to say, and so it was time for him to go on with Slavey to some other Roncesvalles, or whatever.  And he finished this trip up symbolically, in the Mississippi delta helping garbage collectors of the race he’d adopted for himself this time on Earth.  There we let one of those poor white people blow Oliver’s Earthly brains out.

            We set Goober up to do that too, or I did.  My connections through Skull and Bones to the CIA extended to the FBI.  So we easily opened the doors for Goober’s operatives to find that Ku Klux Klan lunatic James Earl Ray and see how he’d fit the task.  Buggen had infiltrated the KKK, as he had infiltrated anything he thought important or threatening to him.  So Ray had only to accept some casual suggestions.

            He sniped Oliver on a motel balcony in Memphis.  It worked out well, except that that fop Jesse Jackson was there and carried that proximity to prominence in the movement.  Jackson later became an embarrassment, by following Oliver’s example of adultery.  But he also proved our timing, as his hypocrisy killed his career.

            Jackson’s legacy would end with one statement:  “I could ‘a’ been a contender.”

Pertinently, that statement is in a James Dean movie filmed the year before Theresa’s bus ride, and the film’s title is On the Waterfront.  That’s where Jackson wished to be, on the front line of justice rolling down like water, rich and famous.

Anyway, Slavey and Oliver went on, and Theresa and I went on, lonely.  But, then, neither of us was entirely lonely, with Theresa living with her Earth family in Detroit and me with mine in Houston.  Both of us fell back on that awhile, Theresa taking care of her mother and Raymond, and I trying to be a father for a while, although a little late.  Lev helped me a little with the lateness, although not quite enough.

 

            Years had passed, and Quincy was now at Harvard.  I had had many heart-to-heart talks with him and had told him I had great expectations for him, but I’d never been specific beyond telling him Earth needed broad leadership.  He chose Harvard rather than Yale because of its business school, figuring business administration was more practical than economics and Harvard more reputable for business administration than Yale.

            I didn’t argue that he’d be missing out on Skull and Bones, because he wouldn’t .  I could pass on to him my connections, and he would make many connections of his own at Harvard, and that’s what I told him:

            “What makes a school’s reputation and power is not academic, Quincy.  It’s the people the school attracts, and so be sure your activities are often extracurricular.  At least that’s how such things seem to me.”

So Quincy joined the cheerleading squad and drank a lot of beer.  The cheerleading made sense to me for a career in politics, and I figured he’d get over the beer, sooner or later.  So I didn’t complain.

Besides, he joined the Air National Guard and went to flight school before he went to college, and we had to argue with him to keep him from going to Vietnam.  Or rather we supported one side of his argument with himself.

“I love to fly, and I love this great nation,” he said.  “But using planes to kill people isn’t quite my cup of tea.”

Ben agreed with that deciding factor, but he was very different from his brother, and I didn’t see the difference developing.  Academically, Ben performed better than Quincy, and he beat him at learning to ride a bicycle, although Quincy was three years older.  He had more friends than Quincy did, and he seldom argued with me or with Beatrice, while Quincy often did. 

            He worked part-time jobs, while Quincy preferred to stay in his room and listen to music.  Sometimes Beatrice and I worried about Quincy, but we both loved music also and so thought he couldn’t be all bad.  Sometimes his arguments seemed a little idealistic, impractical in the face of Earth behavior.  But we had no problem with that, Beatrice being theological and I being alien.

            And maybe that was part of the problem with Ben.  Beatrice and I loved each other because we faced the world from different perspectives but with the same desire to make it a better place for all the creatures here.  So we sympathized with Quincy’s idealism and will to find perfection, and we never found a way to talk with Ben.

            So the first inkling I had of Ben’s dissatisfaction was on a visit to Quincy in Cambridge.  Quincy had decided to stay in Cambridge that summer, because he had met a girl he said was making him recite Petrarchan sonnets.  So Beatrice and I decided to go to see him, if he wouldn’t come see us that summer, and of course to meet the girl.

            The girl was lovely, and her name was Laura.  I guess that’s where the Petrarchan part comes in, if not from other things.  And we learned when we met her, not from Quincy with his sometimes taciturn ways, that he’d known her in school in Midland.  Now she was at Radcliffe and majoring in elementary education, to go back to teach.

            In the spirit of the things involved there and then, Quincy recruited his mother and the future mother of his children, although we didn’t know that then, to go get some ice-cream.  So, Quincy and the women wandered off to Harvard Square and left Ben and me in Harvard Yard, sitting on the steps of the Widener library, trying to widen ourselves.

            “Decide on a school yet?” I asked.  “This Vietnam thing’s going to get you, if you don’t.  Well, I know I don’t have to tell you that.”

            “I’d go to Canada,” said Ben.  “Screw this country.  But yes I have.”

            I had never heard him say anything so vehemently, and I had no idea he held any animosity to anything, much less his country.  But I tried to stay cool, and I tried not to drop my jaw as I stared at him briefly, and I didn’t address the question of screwing his country, hoping knowing his choice of schools might give me a hint.

            “Where?” I asked.

            “UCLA,” he answered.  “I want nothing to do with this preppy crap and this pseudo-intellectualism and all these hypocrites up here in New England pretending they want something more than the wampum those Puritans came here to get.  You think I don’t know what you and Mom do, her teaching Sunday school while you go around destroying the environment sucking up oil for money so you can send your sons to these fancy hypocrite schools and be proud of yourself.  UCLA is my ticket.”

            Well, now that was a reply, but it raised more questions for me than answers.

            “I had no idea you felt that way,” I said, with another effort at a placid look.

            “That’s because you don’t pay any attention to anything,” said Ben.  “You’re so stupid, you think I’m stupid.  I know you told Quincy you have great expectations for him.  And he’s so stupid, he thinks your expectations are high.  I’m glad you never said anything like that to me.  My expectations are higher.”

            “What are your expectations?” I asked, with another failing glance.

             “Higher than yours,” said Ben.  “I’m highly intelligent, and so I know that most people are stupid.  I bet you don’t know I failed the entrance-examination to Yale because it’s a stupid culture-biased test for New England preppies.”

            “I didn’t know you took the test,” I answered, now unable to turn my head.

            “Of course you didn’t,” said Ben.  “You don’t have any of your great expectations for me.  You’re like that phony jerk Alex Trebek, pretending he knows everything while the producers give him the answers.  Everybody on that show is smarter than he is and better-qualified for his job than he is, and that’s how you are.  You think you know everything, but you’re too ignorant to know anything.  You and Mom, the queen of denial, run our family like Jeopardy.  It’s the lunatics in charge of the asylum.”

            I was at a total loss in this.  For now at least, I could muster nothing intelligent to say.  So, groping and grasping, I said something stupid.

            “Why UCLA?”  I asked.  “Isn’t Alex Trebek from out there.”

            “That shows what you know,” said Ben.  “He’s from Canada, but yes he lives out there, corrupting Hollywood with his hypocrisy.  I’m going to California to get as far away from New England as I can, and I hope you and Mom and Quincy go to D.C.  I guess that’s where you’re headed anyway, with your Republican politics and your token black friends.  I’d rather be governor of California than president of the United States.  You think I’m stupid, but I’m a problem-solver.

            “If Fits Jr. hadn’t been assassinated, he might have gotten his brother Rudy to do something about how the home of Harvard and MIT is also the home of one of the worst public school debacles in this nation.  In California, the best schools are public, from universities down to educating prepubescent illegal aliens.”

            The problem I was trying to solve was how my son and I had become so at odds without my knowing it, while we agreed so much on fundamental points of reason.  I could not but think of Slavey’s and Norma’s mothers dying in loony bins, and I could not but consider where this craziness, this disagreement that seemed agreeable to me, might go.  By now, my Earth mother was living in a nursing home because she’d had a stroke, and I considered the possibility that Ben might be having some sort of stroke.  He’d had some seizures early in his life, but doctors had said he’d outgrown the disorder.  But, whatever was happening, I knew I couldn’t stop it in a minute.  For now, I’d have to ride along and watch, I guessed.  I could hardly think.

            “Have you been accepted?” I asked.  “How are you going to get there?”

            “Of course, I’ll be accepted,” he answered.  “They don’t have preppy tests out there.  And, if you won’t pay for it, I’ll get a job or scholarships or something.  I’m a problem-solver.  I’ll figure it out.”

            “I’ll support you,” I said.  “But not to blow up parliament or congress.”

            “What’s that supposed to mean?” he asked.  “Your sarcasm is sickening!”

            In that weird note, Laura and Quincy and Beatrice reentered the yard.

            “They’ll fulfill your expectations,” said Ben.  “Like sheep marching to the sea.  Buy them a Mercedes.  I’ll settle for an MG.  I love open air.”

            He acquiesced in his mother’s presence, but I nearly could see smoke blowing from his ears.  The rest of the afternoon, he didn't speak beyond terse answers to questions straight to him.  I also tried not to smile, except to keep the others happy.  I tried to figure how to speak to Beatrice of this.

            “Ben says he wants to go to UCLA,” I said, back at the hotel.

            “I know,” she said.  “He’ll be alright.  Just give him time.”

            I had never loved her more, telling me of time that time.

 

            So I took some time, to ask Lev what he thought, the next time I had occasion to be in New Orleans.  Lev, despite our little tête-à-tête about beer, was still hanging out in the bars of the French Quarter, and we met at his favorite, Molly’s at the Market.  We sat on high stools, at one of the high wooden tables opposite the bar, and talked.

            “My son Ben’s driving me crazy,” I said.

            “What’s his problem?” asked Lev.

            So I told him the story and added a little.

“Beatrice and I named our firstborn Quincy, because I knew he would follow me into the presidency of the United States, you know as John Quincy Adams followed his father John Adams, and Beatrice hoped so.  And we named our lastborn son Benjamin, from Hebrew for son of the right hand because we would sort our responsibilities somewhat, with me mainly raising Quincy, and Beatrice mainly Ben.  But we hoped each hand would know very well what the other was doing.  And we hoped and waited to find how we would hand the handing on.  That’s what’s most important, at least as far as I can see.  What do you think?”

“That’s as far as I can see?” said Lev.  “Is that what you’re asking?”

“No,” I said.  “I’m asking you maybe to help me see a little further.”

“Oh,” said Lev.  “Good, because I’ve been studying psychology.”

“Do you mean in Russia with Pavlov when you were alive?”

“No, I mean in Vienna with Freud, since I’ve been dead.”

“You ghosts really get around,” I said.

“Nevermind that,” Lev said.  “Listen.”


 

 

 

 

Chapter 14

The Tin Drum

 

“Siggy,” Lev rattled on, “had plenty of lunacy of his own to worry about.  For example, that thing about a phallic symbol being anything longer than it is wide.  When I talked with him, he was getting cancer of the throat because of the cigars he was smoking, and he still couldn’t stop smoking them, then.  Still, if anyone asked him whether cigars were phallic symbols, he said cigars were just cigars.  So he died, presumably of throat cancer, and Norma said she never saw him in Heaven.”

“What brought up that subject between you and Norma?”

“She was asking me about her mom.  But listen now.

“Oh, before I forget.  I met a very creepy guy in England, a Rhodes scholar from Arkansas, if you can believe that.  He likes to stick cigars in young women's vaginas, and he smokes marijuana without inhaling, and he says he’s going to be president of the United States.  That might sound far-fetched, but with an Oxford degree and no holds barred you never know what he might weasel.  Sorry for the insult to the weasels.  I think he might be a clingon.  You know about clingons.”

“I’ll keep an eye out,” I said.  “Thanks for the warning.”

“Anyway, with the possible exception of that creepy guy, I think Freud’s notion about penis-envy is way out of line with any actuality, but I think some of his stuff has some rationality in it, and some of it a lot.  For example, I think a lot of men love their mothers and are a little jealous of their fathers, but I don’t know any that would go as far as Oedipus did, killing his father and marrying his mother, at least not on purpose.  But one notion of Freud’s that makes perfect sense to me is repression.

“Think about it.  Is anyone going to think about anything that makes him totally despise himself?  Of course not, any more than anyone is going to stick a needle in his eye unless he thinks it’ll make him feel better by thinking he’s getting what he deserves.  I mean that people can’t remember anything they can’t somehow reconcile in their conscience.  Feel free to jump in, if you’re not following me here.”

“What about Hitler?” I asked.  “He didn’t seem very forgetful.”

“Hitler believed in what he was doing.  No one, not Hitler, not Jeffrey Dahmer, does anything intentionally without somehow feeling justified at the moment.  Hitler somehow managed to think he was right, the master race, I guess.”

“If he thought he was right, why did he kill himself?”

“Like sticking a needle in his eye.  He did that to punish himself for not getting the job done, the same reason some so-called Christians whip themselves.  They’re trying to whip their egos into shape, to show themselves that at least they don’t like their sins, and so are better than their sins.  In Hitler’s eyes, his sin was incompetence.

“The bad news in that is that people can rationalize nearly any horror, but the good news is that no one ever does anything intentionally that he can’t somehow justify in his own mind as being good.  In other words, everyone’s good, at heart.  Get it?”

I didn’t nod, and so Lev rambled on.

“So the purpose of psychiatry and psychology needs to be to clear up the rationalization while pointing out that fundamental fact.  Freud said rationalization is another defense mechanism, and so putting that purpose into psychotherapy would defeat two defense mechanisms and cure the person, making him an honest loving person.

“What do you think?”

“I don’t get it yet.”

“Okay, listen some more, back on the matter of memory.  I also called on Otto Rank, Siggy’s buddy who said that everybody’s fundamentally psychologically unsound because of the strain of being squeezed through a vagina, beginning life on Earth that way.  He called it the birth trauma. Think about that.

“Trauma?  There you are floating around in a nice warm womb, no wind or rain or need for teeth.  Suddenly your head’s squashed, and you’re hanging by your heels like Mussolini with some big hand whacking your butt, and the temperature just dropped thirty percent.  Think about what warm and cuddly means, and think about what alienation means.  Oh, I forgot you’re an expert on alienation.

“Anyhow, put that memory stuff together with the rationalization part and remember that you can’t remember what happened before you could talk.  Oh, there I did it again, forgetting you’re immortal, never been born.  Well, take my word for it.”

“Yes,” I said.  “I’ve been talking forever, but I’ll take your word for it.”

Lev’s learned U.S.A. colloquialism surprised me, but I understood it.

“So nobody can remember the birth trauma, but everybody feels bad about it, because it was a real pain, most people’s first pain.  So they spend their whole lives feeling bad about something they can’t remember.  That’s why people are so crazy.  See what I mean now?  Now do you get it?”

I didn’t tell him that people do live forever and that the reason for the birth trauma is so they can’t remember and so try to find ways to feel good and eventually figure out that the best way to do that is to make others feel better.  I decided to invite him to our mission-review and let him know that then.

“Then,” said Lev, “I paid a call on that other Freudian, Jung.  Jung had a notion he called synchronicity, that he said was the explanation of what he called the collective unconscious.  I thought that was the first step in the destruction of psychological science.  Synchronicity is nothing but being in tune with cause and effect.

“I mean, we call it a chain, but it’s more like a chain-link fence, or chain mail.  There are no spaces in the universe, as even Einstein understood for all his abstraction and artificial complexity, and so everybody feels everything all at once.  If someone drops a shoe in China, the air it displaces will displace all air, eventually the air you breathe right here.  So not recognizing everything only comes from hodgepodging.

“Collective unconscious?  We just share, whether we like it or not, and that’s what’s craziest about psychologists.  They can’t share.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.  “They’re always talking about sharing!”

“They talk to hear themselves talk differently from other psychologists.  Some of them make some solid central sense for a while, but then they go off on their tangents.  Freud defined sanity as the ability to love and to work, lieben und arbeiten.  The neo-Freudian Erik Erikson said it’s the ability to trust.

“To me, they both make sense.  Love inspires work, and trust inspires teamwork.  Without all of that, we’re all more alien than you are, alienated from our neighbors, alone in a sloth of despond.  But psychologists and psychiatrists drive us all crazier by their failure at teamwork.  They try to think they’re number one.

“Depth-psychologists promote psychotherapy, while behaviorists promote stimulus and response.  Each decries the other’s approach, but the basic science is the same, in that a depth-psychologist gets his patients to cure themselves by facing the facts about themselves, by rewarding them with the notion that what they are is worth facing.  Either way, it’s about making a person feel good about what needs to be done.

“But, if psychologists admit their similarity, they won’t get published.  They won’t get professorships or have their names announced at seminars.  The reason is that people name ideas for the people who create them, and so no two people can have credit for sharing an idea.  ‘Publish or perish,’ people say; if they agree, they fail.

“It isn’t failure; but they see it that way, because it pitches them into ego despair, because they themselves wish to feel worthy as well, and they need for that that their names be announced and praised.  And, worse, it seeps into individual therapy.

“The worst example of that is from another neo-Freudian.  Carl Rogers called it non-directive therapy, making non-directive therapy Rogerian.  What a non-directive therapist does is to encourage the client to express himself openly, at first.  Then the therapist cuts the client’s legs out from under him.  He gives the client’s ego a square kick in the butt, or the psyche.  He makes the client feel invisible, out of the picture.

“'What I hear you saying is . . . ,' says the therapist.

“Then he finishes that sentence with something the client didn’t say at all, but rather with something that fits the therapist's idea of what the client would say, were the client to fit the theories the therapist professes, were he to fit the therapist’s claim to fame.  So the therapist leaves the client feeling alone in the room, for all practical purposes.  Except that the client feels he’s with someone who doesn’t think he matters.

            “An anthropologist named Gregory Bateson formulated what he called the double-bind theory of schizophrenia.  He said that people depart from reality when they can’t reconcile their abilities with the demands they feel are placed on them, when they’re treated as failures regardless of what they do.  It’s kind of like Freud’s notion of repression, but it goes beyond memory to behavior and positive perception.

            “The person really flips out, because he doesn’t find staying in viable.  Because therapy is a last resort, Rogerian therapy tends to make people do that.  When the client finds himself nonexistent in the eyes of the make-believing therapist, he has nowhere left to turn.  The reason is that the therapist has already flipped out, for much the same reason.  Then also, the clinician can easily jump the desperate client’s bones.  In this last resort, the client is desperate for any attention.  It can be screw or go crazier.

“Am I making sense to you now?” Lev asked.

“Yes,” I said “That stuff drives me crazy, too.”

“Yeah,” said Lev.  “And the first reason they do it is that they need to think of people differently than other mental health professionals, to be a mental health professional of reputed stature, because we consider different better.  Nearly all Earth leadership goes by the same motto: Bigotry is best.

“A psychologist showed that plainly to me when I asked him what he thought of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association.  The DSM is a sort of dictionary that that association periodically updates so mental health professionals can use the same vocabulary when they talk about their clients’ problems.  It doesn’t say how people get the way they get or how to get them out of how they get, but only offers names for symptoms and syndromes.  In other words, it tries to be a tool for teamwork, for communication.  A great thing, communication, I think.

“‘The DSM’s no good,’ said the psychologist.  ‘It’s written by psychiatrists.’”

I nearly spit in my beer, and I rose from my stool to get two more from Maggie, the barmaid who drew the wonderful charcoal portrait of Yeats that then hung on the wall behind the bar at Molly’s.  A print of it hangs there now, although Maggie has now opened her own gallery.  She took the original with her there.

“I thought you’d find that hard to swallow,” said Lev when I returned.

“Too bad about Yeats and Maude Gonne,” I said.  “Too bad they didn’t work quite well together there, for their common cause, for Ireland.  Too bad that keeps going on, and on and on, and on.  I just don’t understand such separation.”

“A crying shame for all of us,” said Lev.  “But that’s another story.

“As I was saying, mental-health professionals are mostly crazy, because they can’t get themselves to work together, and care much less for their patients than for their own fame and fortune.  While I was studying psychology, I visited Stanford because it was the most reputable school for psychology in this nation then, and I mentioned Rank to the dean of the personality department, in his cluttered scholar office.

“’We don’t study Rank here’, he said.  ‘This is what we do.’

“And he held before my ghostly eyes a big piece of paper with a squiggle line-graph drawn across it.  My first thought was of the Himalayas, but my second thought was of embezzling accountants, people penciling people to death.

“‘We don’t work with theory here,’ said the dean.  ‘We’re empirical.’

“I had to leave.  I got out quickly.  I felt no need to sit and hear him tell me what he didn’t hear me saying, if I told him that empiricism needs a premise, that no fact is an island, as is no man.  I wished to point out to him that worthy subjects for empirical study might be the sensibilities of his theoretical predecessors.  But I saw he’d hear me threatening his claim to originality, whatever he or I said.

“I might have told him I heard him saying that his fame and fortune was more important to him than the mental health for which he professed to care.  But, you know, I’m not that kind of guy.  I’m too easy-going.”

“I know!” I said.  “But what has this to do with Ben?”

“Ben’s crazy,” said Lev.  “For all those reasons.”

 

“You mean my son’s a double-bound bigot?” I exclaimed.

“Exactly,” said Lev.  “He thinks he has to be better or worse than his brother, and he can’t accept worse as an alternative.  He sees you as a powerful big-guy besides just being his father, and he sees you as favoring Quincy, another bigger guy.  Ordinarily younger brothers get over that, because the youngest is ordinarily pampered more in the early exigencies of comparison.  I mean the younger is usually treated better than the older at the beginning of the younger’s life, because he’s newer to the family, besides being younger, more needful.  But Ben was born when you were doing most of your post-world-war gallivanting, meeting people like Yasser and Mikhail.

“Besides,” added Lev, “I think he’s gay.”

            “Gay!” I exclaimed, more loudly than I had to the double bind.  “Are you crazy?”

            Maggie looked with surprise, but the bar was mainly empty, that afternoon.

            “Sure,” replied Lev.  “If I weren’t crazy, I wouldn’t be a ghost.  But that doesn’t mean I’m wrong, or that you should shoot the messenger.”

            “I’m not going to shoot anyone,” I answered.  “At least not today, and I welcome your views, crazy or not.  Earthlings call the sanest Earthlings nuts, and follow such as Hitler.  So please tell me more.  You know I trust you.  You’re my friend.  Ghost or not.”

            “Alright,” said Lev.  “Here’s the deal.  One thing no psychologist, whether or not being crazy, has postulated for his name is what I would call the greener-grass syndrome, were I a mental-health professional, crazy or not.  People want what they don’t have.

            “That defines the word ‘want’, which is often confused with the word ‘wish’, proving a theological theory of mine that the devil is nothing but confusion.  But what I’m trying to say now is that people wish for what they see themselves to want, whether they need it or not.  While you were gallivanting, Ben wanted a male presence.

            “Quincy also lacked your presence, but Ben was younger then and more formative, and Quincy had your presence at the comparable time of his life, when you were at Yale, studying at home.  Your telling Quincy you had great expectations of him but not telling Ben the same fired Ben’s combination of problems into wacky-land, like a hair-trigger.  A powder-keg doesn’t need much spark to explode, and you’re lucky the two of you were alone in Harvard Yard, with Beatrice and Laura somewhat away.  Otherwise you might not know for years.  Now he’s pulled your trigger.”

            “He has indeed done that,” I said.  “Thank God for it.”

            “Any immediate ideas of what to do?” asked Lev.

            “Not immediate, and I’m still not sure of the gay part.”

            “Well,” said Lev.  “Think about this.  Consider why British male aristocracy seems so effeminate, if it isn’t that Nanny and Mum care for British children’s infancy while Pop plays polo, and then they send them to sexually segregated boarding schools, for what behaviorists call reinforcement.  On this side of the Atlantic, wait until the pre-boomers of this nation grow to the point that they achieve some power, remembering that their fathers were away for the duration of the war, during the pre-boomers’ infancy.

“You know what I mean?  Quincy is a baby-boomer, but he might have had a gay big-brother, if you hadn’t taken my advice not to start your family until you came back from the war.  Consider that for the empiricists, how difficult getting the statistics would be, because of the closet-skewing.  Liberace and Little Richard and Rock Hudson may die in the closet.  I suggest you get closer to your son Ben.  I suggest you help him fix all that.  But that’s just what I think.  It’s all on you to do.

“Anyway, the only problem I have with homosexuality is that closet thing.  One kind of hiding leads to other kinds of hiding, another domino-effect.  Dishonesty about one thing makes other dishonesty easier.

“So you two have to talk to one another.”

“Thank you, Lev,” I said to him.

I thought a little more about all of it.

“I will do that as I can,” I said.

But how could I?  How could I?

The afternoon sun was slanting through the open window to the street.  Professor Big Stuff had come in and parked himself at the piano there at the front end of the bar.  I looked up and broke my focus and thought of another question.

“Why doesn’t he listen to music?” I had to ask then.

Lev took more moments to answer than he usually did.

“This is going to be tougher to take,” said Lev, and he waited another moment.

“Didn’t you tell me that Beatrice’s brother and sister work at thinking they’re smart by thinking of ways to think other people are stupid?  And didn’t you tell me that her brother is trying to make a career of being a musical preacher?  And didn’t you tell me that Ben told you Uncle Pete asked him to give him massages?”

I got up, nodded to Professor Big Stuff, and got us a couple more beers.

“Go on,” I said on return, not acknowledging that I knew what was coming.

“Well,” said Lev.  “That’s where Ben got that stuff about how stupid everyone is, why he uses that way of trying to wash away his ego despair.  As for the music, maybe he has a bad taste for it, or maybe he wishes to make better music with someone not his uncle.  It’s a goddamned shame, since music is such a wonderful way of bringing people together, of opening up our hearts and minds to all.  Goddamned pervert preachers.  And they’re all over.  They sneak all over.  All around Earth.  God damned!”

“What do you think their problem is?” I asked, despairing.

“Same as all we’ve talked about,” said Lev.  “People don’t know how important they are.  People are so preoccupied with their own insanity that they don’t see what their lives are doing to life around them.  That problem is most preeminent with parents, and least excusable with credentialed mental-health professionals, and craziest with priests.  I know we need to love and forgive everyone and help them.  But if God damns anyone, it must be pedophile priests.  What grotesque misnomer, pedophilia.  I love children.”

“People say love is cruel,” I said.

“People are crazy,” said Lev.

 

I looked around the bar.  Besides the portrait of Yeats, on the wall behind the bar were insignia of United States Marine Corps units.  Professor Big Stuff banged on the piano and sang his own compositions of intentional total nonsense, with occasional profanity to keep up interest in case anyone paid attention.  A young man entered the bar in a dress that might have been appropriate for a character in The Grapes of Wrath.  With easy grace and no flamboyance, he walked past us.

“Nice dress, Steve,” said Lev.

“Thanks,” said Steve, smiling at Lev and looking at me, and then walking on to the back end of the bar, where Maggie took him a mug of beer.         

“What about that stuff about ‘Screw this country’?” I asked.

“Maybe Ben’s right about that.  This country, for all its foundation on independence, still screws people.  I realize it’s democracy, but I also realize that politicians are in a position to guide in the right or left direction, and I realize they have responsibility to accept advice from experts, from their betters.

“For example, you’re an economist, or so says your course-record at Yale.  Immigrants founded this nation, with the excuse that they were fleeing oppression but with the reason that they could cultivate its resources for economic wealth beyond the natives’, and they called what they were doing the protestant work-ethic.

“Next, they imported Africans to do the work for them.  And now we’re calling Mexicans coming here willing to do that work wetbacks, although little of the Rio Grande is more than knee-deep, and we try to keep them out.  Next thing you know, the citizen bums afraid of anyone willing to do the jobs they’re too lazy to do will start trying to make a living by suing McDonalds for making them fat by letting them spend their welfare checks to eat dead cows and French fries.

“The food-stamp laws require them to prepare the meat and cut the potatoes themselves, and so the more fiscally responsible of them won’t go to McDonalds, anyway.  But maybe they’ll find a way to sue the people who freeze the dead cattle and cut the potatoes into the TV dinners the food-stamp laws don’t consider prepared, sue them for not putting signs on the boxes giving them information they could get at the public library if they were willing to work for their own welfare.

“‘Don’t eat me,’ a sign on a box might say to the homeless before they microwave their TV dinners.  ‘I’ll make you fat while you’re not paying attention, as you don’t pay attention to the records of the politicians for whom you vote on the basis of their promises.  Since you’re not working for a living and are too lazy and ignorant to go to the public library and read books and newspapers, you may as well spend your time in the supermarket, reading boxes.’

“Any historian worth that name knows that the fat-cat lawyers who make a living off such lawsuits have been corrupting economies since before the Pharisees.  And any economist knows they contribute nothing to the economy, while honest work like picking cherries contributes much.  And no one needs to read to know all that.

“He might be somewhat right about New England preppies, too.  Harvard’s Hasty Pudding, which is famous partly for deliberate sexual identity confusion, selected as its man of this year an obviously unconstrained drug-addict movie-star, and no one needs to read to know all that, either.

“Still, communication doesn’t flow freely enough to the masses.  Computers might cure that someday, with an international network anyone can access from a computer in his or her home.  If that happens, the problem may soon be solved.

“But, until something like that happens, people like Jimmy Huffa will be taking workers’ money for services broader communication would let them do for themselves.

“Anyway, we need aliens to show us how to work.  Thanks for coming.”

 

Lev never learned.  Dead now for three quarters of a century, wandering the earth as he wished and seeing all of it, he kept his fundamental ghostly values.  He thought people should be sensible, to themselves and to others for everyone’s happiness.  And that notion lit all his thoughts, wherever he went, whatever he saw.  Was he still beating the horse Dostoevski said was dead?

“I’ll ask Ben if he’s gay,” I said.

“Ask him if he’d like to be governor of California,” said Lev.  “I know you could do that for him, and his will is good and basic, however hunting.  He probably thinks the whole world is picking on him because he’s gay, and he probably hasn’t told you and Beatrice about it because he fears that you might, too.  If you show him he’s wrong about that, he might see that he’s wrong about some of that other stuff, too.  And he might form a California coalition of fruits for fruit-pickers.”

“I’ll ask him about that, too.” I said.  “But not in those terms.”

“Fair enough,” said Lev.  “Call it gay good work for all.  Oh, and let him run on the Democrat ticket.  I know your connections span the two parties, with Harriman and all.  And it’ll help Ben know you’re not trying to push him into your mold.”

“You’re a pushy bugger in your old age,” I said to Lev.

“I don’t push any further than I can,” he answered.

 

Next day, I took an early flight back to Houston.  I might have driven, but our Studebaker had long ago found its way to rusting in a junkyard, and I loved flying anyway.  I was also an environmentalist, but that excuse wouldn’t wash economically or otherwise for a flight as short as from New Orleans to Houston.  What did wash was the little extra freedom of thought, looking down to the silver cloud-tops.

I took a taxi to our comfy home in our comfy suburban neighborhood, with its magnolias shading the street and the houses with bicycles lying on steps to some of the houses, while Volvos waited in drives.  I kissed Beatrice and asked her where Ben was.

“He’s in his room,” she said.  “A friend has spent the night.”


 

 

 

 

Chapter 15

The Sound and the Fury

 

With thoughts that complicated the situation more than thoughts of mine might have done before yesterday, I climbed the stairs and treaded the hall to Ben’s room.  I knocked on the door and waited, feeling like the father that I was.

“Just a minute,” quickly came Ben’s answer.

I didn’t smell marijuana or hear the toilet flushing.

“Oh hi, Dad,” said Ben, opening wide the door.

His friend was tucking in his shirt beside the window.

“I didn’t mean to bother you,” I said.  “But I’m driving over to San Antonio this afternoon, and I wondered if you’d like to go along.  I don’t have to go, but there’s something I could take care of better by being there than by telephone, and I’d like some company for the drive.  Thought I’d let you know, if you’d like to go.”

“Sure, Dad,” said Ben.  “I guess so.  Whatever.”

“About one then?  After Mom fixes lunch?”

“Yeah.  Okay.  See you at lunch.”

I don’t know what got into the boy.  He could have fixed a sandwich anytime, as he usually did.  But he sat with me and Beatrice at our kitchen table and ate cheese and tomato sandwiches and Beatrice’s wonderful potato salad as though we did that every day and all day long and cared to do nothing else.  He smiled and talked.

“I was thinking about drama,” he said.  “But maybe political science.  I guess, in the long run, there’s not much difference.  Either way, you have to perform in front of people, and either way you can get your point across.  I thought about medicine, but I don’t care that much for money.  And I think it would be boring.”

“Well,” said Beatrice.  “Whatever you do, don’t do anything boring.”

“Mom, you’re making fun of me,” said Ben, but still he grinned.

“No, I’m not,” said Beatrice.  “We all need to feel for what we do.”

Ben seemed surprised at that, and I do not know why.  But, without Lev’s advice, and with Beatrice’s good wish, we headed west across flat Texas, toward the city of Saint Anthony, and the Alamo.  After leaving the house, neither of us said a word until we had filled up the tank and left the city.  Our Land Rover didn’t belong on the Interstate, but the trip was too far for back-roads.  We braved a little tedium and talked.

“Thanks for buying this,” said Ben.

“Buying what?” I asked.

“This Rover,” said Ben.  “It was my idea.  Remember?”

I didn’t remember, and I had often wondered why we had bought it, since it was our only car and Beatrice wasn’t exactly a rugged outdoor type, at least not for the sake of ruggedness.  I could have lied and said I did remember, but this was not a time for lies, if any ever is.  And so I simply told the truth to Ben.

“No,” I said.  “I don’t remember why we got it, but sometimes I’ve sort of wondered why your mom would buy such a thing.  We should use it for what it’s designed for sometime.  Maybe drive it down to Mexico.  Do the Baja 1000 ourselves.  Know what I mean?  Kick a little dust?”

“Sounds right to me,” said Ben.  “Whatcha gotta do in San Antone?”

“Nothing important,” I said.  “It’ll only take a minute.  Your uncle Harry’s working a deal, and he wants a guy to see my face and shake my hand.  I’ll just do it and get out, if you don’t mind waiting a few minutes.  Seen the Alamo lately?”

“I don’t mind,” said Ben.  “And I don’t remember ever seeing the Alamo.”

“You saw it the only time I did,” I said.  “You and Quincy and your mom and I drove there once from Midland.  Your mom asked me if I’d ever seen it, and I hadn’t.  So she said we should, and she was right.   At least I think that she is always right.

“‘How else can we claim Texas as our home?’ she asked.

“So, the next weekend, we piled the two of you into that Studebaker we used to have, and we drove down.  We spent the night in a motel.

“‘Now that we’ve seen it, we can remember it,’ she said.

“So how’s it going with you and UCLA?  Any set steps?”

“I’m accepted,” said Ben.  “I was going to tell you.  Listen, Dad.

“I’m sorry I freaked out in Harvard Yard.  I was way out of line.”

“I’m sorry, Ben,” I said.  “I think I’ve been way out of line for a long time.”

So we chitchatted pleasantly the couple-hundred miles to San Antonio.  Ben drove most of the way and parked the Rover near the St. Anthony Hotel, where Harriman was having his little meeting.  I did my little duty, which I had no big reason to do, and we walked to the Alamo.  We took a quick tour inside and sat on a bench outside on the plaza.  With trepidation, but not beating around the bush, I raised the subject.

“Ben, are you gay?”

“What?” said Ben.

He looked at me, and his face turned as red as the Azalea blossoms in the square, and there was no way I was going to repeat the question.  The trepidation was now beating my alien self to death.  And so I bowed my Earthling head to Earth.

“Yes,” said Ben, almost immediately.  “Who told you that?  Is that why you asked me to come here with you?  What a bunch of holy hypocritical crap!”

He had looked away and looked back again and was still as red as the blossoms.

“A friend,” I said.  “You haven’t met him.  He doesn’t get to Texas much, but I’ve known him a long time, and I’ve talked with him about you and all of us over the years, and I told him about Harvard Yard.  He said he thinks you’re gay, and he said he thinks it’s more my fault than yours.  I mean, if it’s a fault.”

“Your fault?” exclaimed Ben, looking straight at me, without an ounce of shame or doubt in sight.  “Do you think everything’s about you?  I’m just gay!  I am!  Me!”

He turned away and looked up at the sun.  But at least his blood was equalizing in his body.  His outside color ebbed from the crimson of the azaleas to near the hue of the adobe of the mission, and I felt I had a chance to talk again.  But, just as I opened my mouth, to say what I had mustered up, he spoke again.

“Does Mom know?”

“Not that I know of.”

“Don’t you tell her!”

Now it was my turn.

“Why?  Why not?  Why haven’t you told her?  And why haven’t you told me?  Don’t you know we’re your parents and care more about you than anybody can?  You keep saying everything’s no big deal, and then you freak out in Harvard Yard like everything in your life, and most of all your family, is a nightmare.  Maybe being homosexual isn’t a big deal, but not trusting us to care is a huge deal.  Damn!”

Now I’d done it.  Ben was weeping, right there in front of the Alamo.  But soon he quieted, pulled out a pocket-handkerchief and wiped his eyes.  He blew his nose and began to speak again, while I shook in my shoes waiting for his to drop.

“Dad,” he said.  “Oppression.  I know how you feel about it.  I know how you feel about it and how proud you are that Aunt Theresa and Uncle Raymond are your friends.  But I’m oppressed too, or would be if anyone knew the truth about me.  Mom would cry her eyes out, and that would oppress me most.  I don’t want to hurt her.”

“Alright,” I said.  “This time not a question.  I’m going to make some statements, right in a row.  You can keep your secret, but Theresa can’t hide her color and wouldn’t if she could, because she’s a good person, and so are you.  Theresa, like those two black leaders who left our earth this year, has spent her life on Earth fighting for people to have the right to be good and be treated accordingly, and not be oppressed by little deals.  Your mother loves you, and I love you far more than any little deal, and at least as much as the big deal you’ve just mentioned.  So I’m going to make a couple of suggestions.

“First that you tell your mother the first chance you get, and second that you run for governor of California the first chance you get.  You’ll have to wait quite a few years for your chance for the second, but your chance for the first will be as soon as we get home tonight.  Incidentally, the first is a great expectation.  The second is nonessential.”

“Governor of California?  I’d need your help, and I can’t be a Republican.”

“Run as a Democrat.  If you and I work together, we can get it done.”

“Well,” said Ben.  “We do have Uncle Harry.”

“Yes, my son.  A friend is a friend.”

“But why should I be governor of California?”

“A lot of gay people there need your help,” I said.

“What about all that church stuff?”

“Give her a chance,” I answered.

We ate on the road and reached Houston late in the evening.  Ben parked the Rover in the drive, and we walked together into the house.  We found Beatrice in the kitchen leaning on the counter beside the sink, her arms folded as though she were trying to think of what she should do next.  Ben didn’t beat around the bush, either.

“I’m gay,” he said.

“So what’s new?” she said.

She kissed him.

 

But I should give you more details of what I was doing during those years besides loving my family and hanging out with my friends, while Slavey and Oliver were getting themselves killed.  If I gave you all the details, you’d never take the time of your life to read this book, but I think it essential to name some times and places and positions.

In 1965, while Linden was letting the Voting Rights Act slide through Congress and the advisory mission in Vietnam slide into a war, Tricky Dicky did his first widely observable trick toward sliding me into the presidency.  He slid me into chairing the Republican Party of Harris County, Texas.  It was a small steppingstone, but key.

The next step was more visible.  That party and people put me into the United States House of Representatives, as a congressman for Houston.  That’s what I was doing while Slavey and Oliver were getting themselves killed, and Linden suggested that I step from the House to the Senate.  I ran, and I had a lot of support, with Cleve Powell as state editor of the Austin Statesman writing a huge feature about me.  But my heart wasn’t quite in it, and we found other ways.  And the House was enough for my résumé.

Also, Cleve’s feature, although it was lengthy, was off-center.  It was full of praise but for little things, pork-barrel types of things, and it embarrassed me.  Lev told me he ran into Cleve later at the White Oaks Saloon, which is why I refer to him as Cleve while his name is Marvin Cleveland Powell.  But Lev liked to call him Cleavon Howley.

Anyhow, Howley had become quite a drunk and had borrowed money from his father to buy the Lincoln County News, and he remembered little of his feature about me, but much of his having met Linden.  He’d met him by covering the dedication of Linden’s presidential library, and he remembered one circumstance above all else.

He told Lev that, while he sat beside Linden on a sofa in a room full of people, Linden hardly spoke to him.  But he said that Linden, sitting there beside him and talking to other people, reached up and rubbed his neck, not Linden’s own neck, but Howley’s.  He said it felt pretty good, considering all the stress he was under, there without a drink.

I don’t know what to make of that, and so I make nothing of it.  But I do make something of something else that was happening in this nation at that time.  From the beatniks of the fifties, improvisational jazz had risen in popularity, along with the rise of civil rights.  It was more free than Dixieland jazz and more white while yet mostly black.

Playboy magazine, for its mostly white audience, initiated an annual jazz poll to discover what jazz artists its readers preferred.  The female vocalist who won the poll each year from the fifties into the middle of the sixties was Ella Fitzgerald, who was black and sang scat but sounded quite white.  Nina Simone didn’t stand a chance.

In the mid-sixties, two female vocalists rose to huge fame.  One was African American, the other Israeli American.  The African American, whose name was Nancy Wilson, sang a blue note with flat clear sustenance to break a heart.  The Israeli American, whose name was Barbra Streisand, sang with the virtuosity of birds.

Somehow, among young and educated music-lovers, a debate arose.  The question was of who was better, Nancy Wilson or Barbra Streisand.  Ben and Quincy took up the question between themselves but never decided on an answer, each agreeing with the points of argument the other put forth.  They couldn’t decide, but they felt they should.

“Why can’t each be best in her own way?” I asked in our kitchen in Houston, around the Christmas of 1965.  “Nancy Wilson sings jazz, and Barbra Streisand sings show-tunes.  They both do both excellently, but mainly they stick to their niches and don’t tread on each other, as the world seems to choose to think they must.”

“That’s a copout,” said Quincy.  “You have to take a side.”

“No,” said Ben.  “Dad’s right on this one.  It’s like that Slavey character who says he doesn’t have a name but lets people call him Slavey because it shows how most black people here got their names.  That guy’s going around saying black is beautiful makes me sick.  We’re all beautiful in our own ways.  Aren’t we?”

“Sounds right to me,” I said.  “But Slavey didn’t start that stuff about black being beautiful, at least not in those terms.”

“But he preaches killing white people by any means necessary,” said Quincy.

“'By any means necessary' doesn’t necessarily mean killing,” I answered.

“Yeah,” said Ben.  “Dad’s right on this one.  The rottenest attitude humans have is that no one can win without beating someone else."

I thought I was right, or I wouldn’t have said it, and I was proud of Ben for recognizing that the debate was essentially bigotry, although I didn’t know at the time his vested interest.  Nancy Wilson soon bumped Ella Fitzgerald from the top of the jazz poll, but Barbra Streisand quickly succeeded her after Playboy implemented Ben’s reconciling argument.  Playboy changed the name from “jazz poll” to “jazz and pop poll”.

Soon, Nancy Wilson faded from view, but I still love to hear them both, and I feel a huge loss.  It was hardly a battlefield, maybe insignificant either in the general history of Earth or the particular history of that decade, but I feel a loss by having no notion of how it should have cleared.  Should we have boosted Nancy Wilson with affirmative action, or Barbra Streisand by the same reasoning, because of the Holocaust?

I think neither, because I love music, and so I let it rest.  What breaks my heart, the loss I feel from that little exercise of democracy, is that the people of this land of the free generally subordinated even music to bigotry, to pick a side.  For what?

 

Whatever, I was busy balancing other things, oil economics and political power.  Hitler was dead, and Oliver and Slavey were dead, and Mikhail was laying low but climbing quickly.  Tricky Dicky was rearing his head again for the presidency, and he would win this time, we knew.  On that there wasn’t much to do.  We’d done it.

My main problem now was on the oil side, and my congressional position had little to do with that.  Yasser was buried so deep beneath the other Arab factions that we had no notion what might happen next, and we weren’t in a position to do anything about whatever it might be, if we did know.  I paid a visit to Yasser in Damascus, wishing for the possibility of falling out of the plane and into enlightenment, as Saul of Tarsus said he did from his horse on his way to that old city, thereby learning not to persecute.  Now, everyone in the area was up in arms, and reason wasn’t in it, as far as I could see.

Keep in mind that this was a score of years after the institution of the Israeli state, after the second war to end all wars on Earth.  But Fatah was still fighting Irgun, although Irgun had given up its name, through joining the United Nations under the name of Israel.  Menachem Begin had founded Irgun to terrorize the British mandate and any Canaanites not Jewish, and Yasser had founded Fatah to fight Irgun.  Now Irgun was Israel, and Fatah was buried in dust.

            Fits Jr. threw that decade’s monkey-wrench into the works there.  He could not have won the presidency of the United States without endorsing the United States civil rights movement, and he could not have won without endorsing Israel as a state.  But, for him, both endorsements were insubstantial.  He’d act differently, or indifferently, later.

            Linden acted indifferently, while doing little things to seem otherwise.  He signed things, to have the United States of America do things, like provide arms to Israel.  The Soviet Union responded in kind for the Arab nations around Canaan, and the world now had two arms-races.  One was between the United States and the Soviet Union for themselves, and the other was between the United States and the Soviet Union for the fight over Canaan.  Dust was rising clouding every issue.

            “What are you going to do?” I asked, as Yasser and I drank more of that brain-buzzing tea at a café beneath the Damascus citadel.

            “I have no notion what to do,” said Yasser.  “It’s anarchy and confusion, everybody running everywhere and paying no attention to where they’re going or where they’ve been.  The Israelis are saying your CIA is backing them, and I have to wonder what that means and whether it’s true.  Do you know they’ve made Menachem Begin a minister without portfolio?  What does that mean?”

            “The CIA claim is bogus,” I said.  “Linden may have given the agency some marching orders, but the order of the agency’s march depends on bureaucracy far deeper than Linden’s vision or his span of concentration.  You know what making Begin a minister without portfolio means, just as you know my vision is deeper than Linden’s.  Begin will be Prime Minister of Israel some day, partly through this current march.  I mean, the march to bury you still more.”

            “Yes,” said Yasser.  “I do know, and I know that what we have on our hands is anarchy, confusion.  Begin has some focus, and the legitimization of Irgun into Israel was but a temporary setback in his relative power.  But, for the rest, I’ve seen some of those old silent movies of your country.  This is global Keystone Cops.”

            “Well, my friend, I know,” I said.  “I just wish to say you’re not forgotten, not by people who care about everyone.  Thanks for your patience so far.  Please keep it.”

            “If you were my lord,” said Yasser, “I’d ask you that question of the Israelis’ that drives me crazy.  I’d ask you how long, but I’m not Israeli.  I’ll wait.”

            “Thank the Lord for that,” I said to him.

 

            Yasser kept up his little attacks in hope that the Palestinians not totally be forgotten in the chaos, but he kept the attacks small enough to avoid any general sanction for large-scale military attack from Israel.  But the attack came anyway.

In one fit, Egypt closed the Straits of Titan to Israeli traffic.  Israel’s responsive fit was to attack every Arab in sight, with the military might the United States had slid to them under Linden’s indifference.  The Soviets, in this little arms race, had exercised more restraint.  So, in six days, Israel tripled its land.  And Yasser lay deeper in dust.

Meanwhile, back in the U.S.A., Tricky Dicky was running for president.  He was a shoe-in, after all the screwing up that Linden had done.  Linden had kept his word and refused reelection, but the messes he’d permitted had also diminished the stature of his party, in the minds of any loving persons viewing the burning babies in Vietnam.  No decent person wished to risk continuing that.  But Dicky thought he still must be tricky.

Fits Jr.’s hubris lived more in his pants, and the drugs he took for his back kept him permanently in desperation, and none of that came from his being a Catholic.  Dicky’s hubris lived more in his desire to be loved for being a better person than he thought he was, and some of that came from his being a Quaker, although he was no Mary Dyer.  Had he her courage of conviction, we wouldn’t have put him into the presidency.  But, had he, he wouldn’t have killed Robert Fits.

Oliver was right.  When Dicky and Fits Jr. were both alive, they were both contenders for being the most dangerous person on Earth.  And Fits Jr.’s brother Robert was a contender for being the most decent man on Earth at that level of political popularity.  And, if Dicky was right, and Robert Fits had won, I’d have suffered gladly.

 

Fits Sr., also known as Sugar Fits, had been one of the most ridiculously dangerous men in the world.  A son of Irish immigrants, he made his fortune during prohibition, untouched through all the corruption one sees in gangster movies about that era.  After prohibition ended, he found a legitimate way to be corrupt, by selling the hooch-delivery trucks he hadn’t legally owned and by collecting dues from the drivers for the legal companies that bought them.  The companies went along because they bought the trucks at bargain prices, and the drivers went along because they needed a job.  And all of them, in that new beginning, had been in Sugar’s illegal business.

From there, the step to organizing other companies into the system was a matter of salesmanship and breaking legs.  The salesmanship was a pretense at acting in the interest of the drivers, and the breaking of legs came when the salesmanship didn’t do the job.  So Sugar Fits built a legal business on the capital infrastructure and human resources of his old allegedly prohibited one.  Corrupt policemen, corrupt politicians, and corrupt employees, all kept him corpulently corrupt, on his corn-liquor-fed sugar.

And, altogether, they kept him legally corrupt, and earned him so much respect that he was Ambassador to England before his grand finale of having his son elected President of the United States and his family called America’s monarchy.

 

He was Boston-born-and-bred.  Boston, the cradle of liberally taking advantage of other people’s weaknesses, the home of the Puritans' robbing the natives and hanging Mary Dyer for her courage of conviction, the home of a plurality of the pedophilic priests of the Roman Catholic Church, was a perfect place for such as Sugar Fits.

We often think of Italians as gangsters and Irish as police, but prohibition tangled the two together.  So South Boston with its predominantly Irish population and Boston’s North End with its predominantly Italian population met at Scolley Square, which was near City Hall and the State House and Fanueil Hall and is now at the center of what Boston calls its Government Center.  Evolution is a fascinating thing.

So Boston was a perfect place for Sugar Fits to raise a family, to establish a family tradition.  Rudy Fits, his youngest son, gets drunk and drives off a bridge with a woman he’s picked up at a party, and leaves her to drown while he runs for cover, dry clothes and political protection.  I guess picking priorities is quite complex sometimes.

Another member of the Fits family beats a woman to death with a golf-club.  Another kills himself skiing drunk into a tree, and the collection of American monarchists George Washington tried to evade burns candles on television for the poor Fits family, cursed by tragedy wherever it turns.  Oh woe is who and why, I have to ask.

Fast forward to the scion of the family, the young prince, Little Fits.  He founds a magazine named George, and no one asks whether the name is for George Washington or for the crazy king George Washington defeated.  He marries a cocaine addict, and the American monarchists call her addiction recreational, and nothing to do with him.

For, after all, they both die before anyone finds out, because the young prince flies himself and his young cocaine princess into the oblivion into which his father nearly sank all humans.  Hubris, I hope anyone would say, to fly or preside beyond one’s ability, at risk and cost of others’ lives.  Achilles was not a god and died a soldier.

Now one son of Fits remains alive, the one who drove the girl into the creek.  The people of the cradle of the libertines who touted Frederick Douglas but let his people down to die elected Rudy to the United States Senate and has kept him there for forty years.  I have to wonder how an unrepentant drunken glutton became an elder statesman.

But thank God the rest of the nation hasn’t made him president.  Not all people of the United States are like the electorate of Massachusetts, and not all cities of the United States are like Boston.  And, also, not all citizens of Boston and Massachusetts and New England vote for hope of gaining from corruption.

Thank God this nation’s grown from sea to sea, and back again.
 

 

 

Chapter 16

Vanity Fair

 

One afternoon on Castle Island, at the entrance to the old harbor where the Puritans had anchored their ships, Theresa and I spoke of manifest destiny as we ate ice-cream as the United States Ship Constitution sailed out to us on one of its now rare outings.  Castle Island is not an island, as nothing is an island, eventually.

“Poor Mary Jo,” said Theresa, with tears in her onyx eyes.

“Poor Norma Jean,” said I.  “Why do we keep coming back?”

“Because seven times seven is infinity, and because we know better than they.  But more because some souls on Earth are honest, and all can learn, somehow.”

I recalled that my Earth family never offered praise.  My parents and siblings never paid me a compliment, except my father once saying I was a good-looking kid, astounding me.  So I was remiss to my children this trip, being also from outer space and so not needing compliments from Earthlings to foster my eternal values.

But their mother wasn’t, and Sugar must have neglected his second son worse than I did mine, and so the question might work many ways.  I can offer no other explanation of Robert Fits’ sincerity, his genuine concern.  Certainly, had he not quietly exercised some influence over Fits Jr., Birmingham would not have been enough to turn his hubric head in our direction, regardless of the success it gave him.

So, I turned my head away, when things appeared as though Fits Jr.’s fictitious martyrdom might carry Robert into the Whitehouse over the head of Tricky Dicky.  Robert might willingly have done all we’d wanted from Dicky, and we’d planned no martyrdoms besides Slavey’s and Oliver’s for this trip, and so I and Theresa trusted the chance, either chance, either way.  But Dicky wasn’t into taking chances.

Taking inspiration from Remington Bosworth, Dicky had Conundrum research newspapers and homeless shelters to find a radical lunatic, a person who would do anything under any pretense of pretext, and be too incoherent for credibility.  Dicky remembered something Conundrum had said about Bosworth.

“Poor schmuck,” had said Conundrum.  “If he were intelligent enough to understand we’re trying to buy his drunken intelligent soul, he might have sold it into the bin in hell where mine is.  As it is, his soul will probably spin into oblivion, drunk or sober, lost.  That’s what we do to stupid people smart enough to care on Earth.”

In that little scotch-soaked speech, Conundrum defined the basis for political corruption, the arrogance that makes despots of revolutionaries, Stalins of communists, Hitlers of socialists.  Bob said it’s silly to try to pull a mote from someone’s eye while one has a beam in one’s own.  Conundrum and Dicky had beams in all their eyes.

So Dicky had a fanatic, someone who had gone over the edge worrying about what Fits Jr.’s endorsement of Israel might do to Islam, kill Robert in a room full of people and go to prison forever.  And Dicky bragged about it to me later, reminding me of what Conundrum had said in that cowboy club in the city of Saint Anthony.

“Hell,” he said.  “You taught me all I know.  You know that.”

So Dicky became president, and I met again with Mikhail.

Why did I meet Mikhail?  The disappointment at war’s end!  We hadn’t come to rid the Earth of Hitler.  The human species worked together to do that for itself.  The problem now was how and why.  The disease, not the symptom.

As Joshua diminished the suffering of the children of Israel in ways Excellent Oliver never condoned, Truman defeated the Japanese in a way Excellent Delano never would have condoned.  Then Truman and Churchill diminished the suffering of more recent descendents of Israel by supporting repetition of the methods of Joshua.  It was fighting fire with fire, racism with racism, poetic vengeance.

Worse, those two world-leaders sanctioned Stalin in the leadership of most of Eastern Europe and much of Asia, thus hurting more descendants of Israel than they had helped by giving them again land that had come to be populated more by Semitic Palestinians than by Jews of any race, and not by crusades or jihads but just by being there and having families.  Those leaders relinquished to one racist regime more than they had taken from another!  What in hell were they thinking?

Now, nearly a quarter of a century later, Mikhail and I met again on Montmartre, beneath the brilliant white dome of the Basilica of the Sacred Heart.  At the same table on the dusty cobblestones, we drank more of that brain-buzzing tea.

 

“How’s it going?” I asked.

“As one might expect,” said Mikhail.  “It’s going slowly.  The Kremlin bigwigs respect me, even Brezhnev.  But it’s a gerontocracy.

“It’s ironic how they work so hard at educating or propagandizing the youth but don’t give them a chance at the top.  We’re going to have to plan on a schedule of Brezhnev’s life-expectancy.  Then we’ll have to put in another sick old man.

“We’ll have to set up a shoe-in who’ll die quickly.  The instability of the quick turnover will shake up the other old men, and I’ll be next in line.  By then, I’ll be indispensable to the circulation of all those old men’s ideas.  What do you think?”

“You know more about it than I do,” I said.  “But it makes sense to me.  Do you have anyone in mind, to be the interim sick old man?  Do you have a plan for making him a shoe-in, like we did with that sicky Tricky Dicky?  Well, of course, so who?”

“Yuri Andropov,” answered Mikhail.  “I’m riding up in the KGB on his coattails.  He can get himself into the chairmanship after Brezhnev dies, on his KGB power.  And he’ll keep his KGB title long enough to die while promoting me to replace him there.  After I help him die, the remaining gerontocracy will look to me for stability.  And they’ll discover me to be more forthright with them.  That is, than Yuri, one at a time.”

“Elegant,” I said.  “Simple, direct.  You’ve surely been thinking.  Anything else?”

“Yes,” said Mikhail.  “You’re going to have to get more global quickly.  Your oil connections give you a pile of power in the first and third worlds, but I’m your only power-link to the second world, the so-called communist powers.  Incidentally, besides you and me, Yuri is the only person alive who knows that you and I have met.”

“You’re a genius,” I said.  “Keep talking.”

“Okay.  The United States have to form a de facto alliance with China, mainland China.  That’ll create huge tensions between China and the Soviet Union, and the loss of influence over those billions of people will scare the hell out of our gerontocracy.”

“Easy to say,” I said.  “How do we do it?”

“Piece of cake,” said Mikhail.  “Get that Dicky dude to appoint you Ambassador to the United Nations.  There, promote recognition of those billions of people as a nation, while at home you get Dicky to pull out of Vietnam.  Dicky’s not buying into that geopolitical domino-theory business as Linden did, anyway, is he?”

“No,” I said.  “He isn’t.  You have a great way of cutting through the crap in what you read, and I like the ideological domino-theory you’ve just presented.  But I’ll have to make it look like it came from within Dicky’s administration.  Well, as much as I hate subterfuge, that’ll be a piece of cake as well, with icing.”

So I flew from De Gaulle International Airport to Dulles International Airport and paid a call on Dicky.  I found him in the oval office with Klingmonger, his national security advisor.  They were sitting in the Louis XVI chairs on opposite sides of the hearth.  They seemed to me moping.  I spoke first.

 

“Poker,” I said.

“What?” asked Dicky.

“Poker,” I repeated.  “What’s with the poker-faces?”

“Quagmire,” said Klingmonger.  “In a word.  But it isn’t poker-faces.  We really don’t know what we’re going to do, because we don’t know what’s in our hands.”

“Which hands?” I asked.

“Any of them,” said Klingmonger.  “Vietnam; the Soviet Union; you name it.”

“What about China?” I asked.

“What about China?” asked Klingmonger.

“I mean, aren’t they part of the problem, all those billions of people?”

“China, Soviet Union, same thing,” said Dicky.

No fire was in the hearth, but the Swedish ivy on the mantel was blossoming, as Swedish ivy does when it receives a lot of sunlight, as this did through the windows from the rose garden.  No one spoke, for more than a minute.

“By God, that’s crazy,” said Klingmonger.

“What’s crazy?” asked Dicky.

“Billions of people living on a huge part of a continent while the world doesn’t recognize that they or their part of the continent exists, while the united nations of the world call an island off those billions of people’s coast by the name that that large piece of the continent has had for nearly all of history.  Meanwhile, the most powerful piece of another continent is bogged down in a quagmire in a tiny nation in between, a nation whose name most of the populace of this powerful nation never knew until now, unless they read it from the bottoms of tin toys as children.  No, that’s Formosa, where the tin toys were made, not Vietnam.  It’s so confusing.  What a quagmire.”

“Yup,” said Dicky.  “That about sums it up, except that you didn’t mention that the second-most powerful nation on Earth, which is another huge piece of the continent you mentioned first, besides controlling much of the continent between the two continents, is taking sides with the billions, against our nation.”

Dicky pushed a button on the mantle, beneath the Swedish ivy.  A woman opened the main door to the office and stopped quiet in the doorway.  She folded her hands beneath her breasts and waited without a word.

“Can we get a fire in here?” said Dicky.

The wonders of modern Earth technology.  The hearth burned wood or gas and had electric ignition.  A few seconds after the woman closed the door, we heard a spark and saw the gas ignite.  Soon some logs were burning there.

“Very nice,” said Klingmonger.  “I love this country.”

“What are you up to these days?” Dicky asked me.

“Not much,” I said.  “My house term is closing out soon, and Linden has suggested I run for the senate.  I made a commitment to the Texas Republican committee to run, but exigencies can change.  Do you have another suggestion, Mr. President?”

“You made the suggestion with your question:  What about China?”

Klingmonger looked at me as he often looked at people, with his index fingers pressed together touching his lips.  But he didn’t wait as long to speak as the woman had waited in the doorway, for Dicky to speak.  He glanced into the fire and back at me.

“Yes, what about China?” he asked.  “What can we do about China?”

“No,” I said.  “Going to the United Nations would be political suicide.”

“Are you refusing your president?” asked Dicky.

“Hm?” asked Klingmonger, raising his eyebrows.

So I ran for the Senate but wimped out of winning that race, and Dicky and Klingmonger threw me into the briar patch of the United Nations.  There, to make a long story short, to succinctly summarize a lot of senseless words, I watched the Taiwan contingency walk out in protest at the recognition of the billions of people as China. 

Klingmonger remembered that I had initiated that conversation with the word ‘poker’, and so Earthlings came to know the improvement of United States relations with China at the expense of Soviet Union relations with China as playing the China card, and Klingmonger got the credit for it, because I’m a quiet man.  Next, Dicky did the other essential against the absurdity.  He pulled us out of the quagmire in Vietnam.  We had cut two Gordian knots.  They and I, simultaneously.  As a team.

But next we had to break apart the team.  We, my team from outer space, had now to get rid of Dicky and Conundrum, and that cake was much easier to cut than the Gordian knot.  The paranoia Dicky had shown in getting rid of Robert Fits reared its ugly head in his getting rid of himself, and Condundrum fell with him.

 

My personal rationalization for not keeping the promise of getting Conundrum into the presidency was that the promise was contingent on Dicky from the beginning, and so I told myself that it was Dicky’s responsibility to hold those strings or drop them, and he dropped them, by himself.  But my personal reason for pleasure in that failure was from Conundrum’s character more than from Dicky’s.

Yet it remains a conundrum for myself!  For me, one conundrum about Conundrum was that he was as Irish as the Fits family.  But maybe the step to betraying one’s whole heritage isn’t much more broad than the step to betraying one’s party.  Or maybe he was just broadminded, or maybe he was just totally a traitor.  Of course he was a killer, but so am I.  My motives are more social.  But is that good enough?

But, whatever, we let Dicky cancel the promise to Conundrum by screwing up his Presidency, after leaving us from Vietnam.  It was funny, watching that turncoat Conundrum flying around in Dicky’s Airforce Two, as if he were doing something by shopping for souvenirs in Afghanistan as its king was being bounced and the Yom Kippur war was intensifying the problems in the Holy Land.  Well, no it wasn’t funny.

And neither are the Keystone Cops, if one needs police to do what police are supposed to do, and if they are all the police available.  Dicky formed his own keystone cop-force to cop out of the keystone of the presidency by breaking into an office-building to steal his opponent party’s secrets, because he felt no worthiness in the secrets of his own, no trust or faith.  Of course the capital cops caught the keystones of his corruption, and followed their scent to his oval office.  The real cops tracked the keystone.

Then, after that bum-bumbling, Dicky lied about his leadership of it, all the way down the line to the bottom of the well in which he drowned his presidency, setting a precedent for corrupt corporate and political leaders to follow forever, if they wish.  Keep your corruption until you have no lifelines left, until you’re dead.  Never tell the truth, no matter what.  It ain’t over ‘til it’s over.  Keep a stiff upper lip.  Always be a crook.  That’s integrity.  Power, virtue.  Arrogance.  Loss.

I, when the bumbling became public, left my United Nations ambassadorship to accept chairmanship of the national committee of the Republican party.  The party leaders besides Dicky thought my international stature and my ordinary quietness would lend some credibility and tranquility to the party in that time of Dicky’s obstreperousness, and I needed to do that for the continuity of my remaining mission.  That party was a tool of mine I couldn’t just then drop.

So I rode its hobbyhorse until its other leaders accepted my argument that my credibility shouldn’t suffer as it might in face of Dicky’s end.  They accepted that I was in a position to do better for the party by getting back on the world stage as a producing actor on it.  So, while Dicky sang his swan-song while calling it an ode to victory, I was rediscovering my old homeland China, face to face.  Dicky and Klingmonger sent me and Beatrice to befriend Chairman Mao.

It was clever card-play.  The United States had not yet officially reestablished diplomatic relations with China.  Officially, the United States were still fuming over the rise of Chairman Mao on the mainland and the demise of Chiang Kai-shek on the island, and everyone who knew anything about the China-card game was happy at my willingness to go there as envoy without portfolio, because I took my Ambassador title from the United Nations.  But little did they know.

 

Little did they know of me, that they were throwing me into my favorite briar patch of all eternity, and that I would understand Mao Tse-tung better than anyone else on Earth could.   Being immortal and having been Lao-tzu, I understood very well why Mikhail and Yasser were taking so long to do what any neighborly person knew needed to be done, and I knew very well that Mao was in a similar boat.  He had to use some slings and arrows, to acquiesce to enemies.

If Mao or Mikhail or Yasser went away then, their absence would be filled by worse, by noisy greedy arrogance, futility.  If they spoke too loudly too soon or acted too quietly too soon, they would be gone too soon.  Their slow solution would end in quick corruption.   And I just might as well have stayed at home.

However, I didn’t stay at home, and I was very much enjoying my present Earth home, and because of that I knew I’d feel a little homesick in my former Earth home, and I knew Beatrice would feel that more than I.  So, before we went, I asked her to call Quincy and Ben, to arrange a little family get-together.

By then, both Quincy and Ben were graduated from college.  Quincy, although he had to struggle a little to do it, achieved his master of business administration degree from Harvard and was back in Houston waddling around in the oil-industry, as had I.  Ben had opted out of graduate school, saying that UCLA had burned him out.  But he was still in the city of angels, working for a bank.

Beatrice suggested that we have our parting get-together there, and she knew she didn’t have to tell me why.  Houston may have been a more rational choice, because Quincy was there along with many of our friends, and none of us knew anyone anywhere near Los Angeles, except Dicky in San Clemente, and Ben of course.  But Ben might have thought we’d honed in on Houston for Quincy. 

            So we selected the city of angels for Ben.  Beatrice and I rented a car at the airport and drove to his apartment, where he and Quincy awaited us.  Ben introduced us to his roommate Chet, who seemed to me an elegant and polite young man.  Beatrice smiled at me with her happy blink when Ben introduced him to us.

            “Anybody not had lunch?” I asked, although it was 2:00 p.m.

            All shook their heads and sank in their seats a little nervously.

            “Onward and upward,” said Ben.  “Let’s go for a ride.”

            “Cool,” I said.  “Where are we going?”

            “Let’s think about it on the way out,” said Ben.

            “Nice meeting you,” said Chet as we arose, the rest of us heading for the door, as he stood still.  “I’ll catch you later, I guess.”

            “You’re not going?” said Quincy.

            “Not this time,” said Chet.  “This one’s for the family.”

            “You’re welcome,” said Beatrice.

            “Thanks,” said Chet.  “Next time, for sure.”

            So we crowded out of the little stucco Hollywood apartment-house, leaving Chet picking up glasses from the tables in a quiet resolution that seemed to me gracious.

            “Nice young man,” said Beatrice.

            “He is nice,” said Ben.

 

            “Crap,” said Ben, when we hit the sidewalk.  “We’ve got a pickup, and Quincy flew.  Why wasn’t I thinking?”

            “No problem,” I said.  “We rented a car.”

            I pointed to the Buick sedan we’d rented for such an exigency.

            “Whew,” said Ben.  “That’s a relief.”

            As with Theresa in Carrizozo, Beatrice and I climbed into the front, and the other boys climbed into the back.  I started the car, and the CD player returned to life with a collection of Elvis Presley’s golden hits Beatrice had bought at the rental office.

“What’s that you’re listening to?” asked Ben.

“Elvis Presley,” said Quincy.

“Elvis Presley sucks!” said Ben.

“Elvis Presley’s dead,” said I.

“His music sucks,” said Ben.

“If you know his music,” asked Quincy, “why didn’t you recognize it?”

“I know enough,” said Ben.  “Next thing you’ll be listening to country and western!”

“I like some of it,” said Quincy.  “I don’t like everything Presley’s done, either.”

“Chet likes country,” said Ben. “I don’t let him play it when I’m around.”

“How does he feel about that?” asked Quincy.

“He knows I love him, anyway,” said Ben.

“So,” I said.  “Where are we going?  Any ideas yet?”

“Onward and upward,” said Ben.  “Griffith Park.  The observatory.”

“Good idea, Ben,” said Quincy.  “I didn’t know you’re into outer space.”

“I’m not,” said Ben.  “We don’t have to go into the observatory.  I just like it for the view of the city, and it’s pretty quiet there.”

“Sounds fair to me,” I said.  “Tell me where to turn.”

Besides Ben’s directions, none of us spoke on the way, except Ben and me briefly.

“Why a bank?” I asked.

“It’s easy,” he answered.

 

We drove up the winding road to the observatory and parked near it but didn’t go in.  We sat on brown grass beneath some trees and looked at the city more florid below.  Still, none of us spoke, until some others sat similarly a few yards away.  Similarly, except that they were laughing and speaking in French.

“Listen to those people flaunting their French,” said Ben.  “What a bunch of idiots!  How can people be like that?”

“Maybe they think it’s the language most appropriate for what they’re saying,” I replied.  “Or maybe they’re French.”

“Why are you always judging me?” asked Ben.

It was good that we were used to that from him.  None of us winced, and I turned to silence, and Quincy filled the gap.

“I’m not into outer space much either,” he said.  “But I’ve thought about it, and that big bang theory doesn’t make any sense to me.  I mean, if some big bang created the universe, and nothing existed before, what banged?”

“Elegant question,” I said.  “I had no idea you . . . .”

I interrupted myself to look at Ben.  Ben showed no sign of attention, but I took another tack anyway.  I had learned the hard way that his attention was beyond his signs.

“What do you think happened to Elvis Presley?” I asked.

“He drugged himself to death on a toilet,” said Ben.

“His hand was too full of grapes, like a banana fish,” said Quincy.

“He didn’t drink alcohol, because he belonged to Jimmy Swaggart's church, and so people taught him to use other drugs,” suggested Beatrice.  “Or maybe his mother was too fat, or maybe his father was too busy.  Or maybe nothing happened to him that doesn’t happen to everyone.”

“Alright,” I said.  “Try this one I’m trying to figure out.  Consider the phrase ‘life as we know it’.  What does that mean?”

“It means humanity,” said Ben.

“What about spiders?” asked Quincy.

“What about tomatoes?” asked Beatrice.

“Oh,” said Ben.  “I thought you meant people.”

“Okay,” I said.  “What about viruses?  If we include them as among the living, what does that phrase mean, ‘life as we know it’?”

“I read somewhere that tomatoes cry when we cut them,” said Beatrice.  “I listened once, but it sounded more like a squeak, to me.”

“That’s what I mean,” I said, for lack of anything better I could think to say.  “What’s the difference between a cry and a squeak?”

“That’s what I mean,” said Ben.  “Scientists say tomatoes and viruses are alive, but they’re not really alive.  They don’t have feelings.”

“If they were really alive,” said Quincy, “sympathy-vegetarians would starve to death, if they have the courage of their convictions.”

“Sorry, Dad,” said Ben, now showing attention.  “We’re picking on you.  You’re trying to get at something.  Spit it out.  Go ahead.”

“Thank you, Ben,” I said.  “I was just thinking about something I heard on television a couple of nights ago, on the news.  It was an interview with someone from NASA about sending a spaceship to Mars.  The interviewer wanted to know why.”

“So do I,” said Ben.  “People on Earth could use the money.”

 

“That’s for sure,” I said.  “But, besides that, what bothered me was that the NASA scientist said we might find life there, because we might find water there with the elements essential to life as we know it.  So I wondered about life as we don’t know it.”

Beatrice moved a little closer to me and didn’t say another word about tomatoes.  I was very happy that she knew my moods so well, and I was very happy that Ben had spoken up to let me speak my mood, showing once more that his attention exceeds his signs.  Now, he was scowling down to ground, as his brother gazed off into space.

“Now that’s what I call consideration of diversity,” he said.  “Just because a creature doesn’t need oxygen or isn’t made of carbon doesn’t mean it doesn’t have any feelings.  And just because it doesn’t cry doesn’t mean it has no feelings, either.”

“You’re some hot tomato,” I said to Beatrice, with a hug.

“Now you’re picking on me,” she replied, with a snuggle.

A vendor in the park was selling Frisbees.  We bought one, dubbed it a flying saucer, and threw it around awhile, dropping it often, to Earth.  A week later, Ben was back at his bank, and Quincy was again immersed in oil, and Beatrice and I were above the Pacific, flying to China.


 

 

 

 

Chapter 17

The Good Earth

 

In Beijing, Beatrice and I found our quarters comfortable.  Beatrice seemed to me to feel my pleasure in returning to this old home of mine, and she seemed to me to feel at home herself.  Our Chinese house-staff moved around us with ancient grace not often on her side of the seas.  She felt their grace quickly and soon moved in accord.

Our official advice, from the State Department sinologists, was to stay in our quarters until we had met Mao.  But, our second day in Beijing, we borrowed bicycles from our house-staff and tooled where our whims took us, stopping to drink tea as we wished and to look more closely at anything that caught our attention.  I felt a little ashamed of leaving Beatrice for my greeting from Mao our third day there, but  Mao made me feel a little better about that.  His grace to us proved perfectly Chinese.

He seemed to know me from before.  I presented him with a little green paperback copy of the Tao Te Ching, and he presented me with a little red paperback copy of the Quotations of Chairman Mao.  I invited him to Texas, and he invited me and Beatrice to travel China, wherever we wished.  He promised freedom and state protection for us in any of our travels there.  I took him at his word, and he kept it.

And that was pretty much the end of my official duty there.  Beatrice and I visited tiny villages and temples, the Shaolin and many others.  We visited villages built of stones carried by hand from the great wall, leaving gaps and rubble for many of its four-thousand miles.  Now the wall was both beautiful and historic.

“I wish the Berlin wall would fall so gracefully,” said Beatrice.

“No Ozymandius am I,” I begged, for hope.

“I know,” she answered.

We were there, and that itself was the play of the card.  I didn’t meet with Mao again until I had to leave again, and that was fine.  Chinese leadership is not corrupt in the sense that United States leadership is corrupt, because Chinese have always admitted that they cannot easily lead billions of people.  So Chinese revolutionaries come and go, while most of their people remain the same.  So Chinese leadership is not as much corruption as acceptance of power.  It’s not as much greed as acceptance.  Leaders can take, and so they do.  The concept is very Chinese.  It’s very Taoist.

Mao understood that.  So his cultural revolution was no revolution at all, just a route to a seat for himself where he could take as many first steps on journeys of a thousand miles as the others around him would and could permit.  He was grateful for the step I had taken, gaining his nation the name-recognition that was simply fair, and he was grateful for the economic-aide that could follow that.  So he followed that step by opening as many doors as he could for other appropriately following steps.  He was pleased to have us as a guest, and there was nothing more that I could do.

Consequently, after Dickey’s paranoia stepped him out of his presidency, I asked his successor to have me back for another line on my résumé and a closer focus on the state of the project I shared with Mikhail.  Gerald appointed me Director of Central Intelligence, and brought me back to America.

“So you’re going to be a spy,” said Mao, in my second and final meeting with him.  “Good.  You seem to me to be a quiet man.”

 

On inauguration day, when Dicky succeeded Linden, I had been the only Republican to see Linden off, when he flew back to Dallas from Dulles.  But, when Gerald replaced Dicky, I was in China and had never met Gerald, despite all my Republican party ties and responsibilities.  Before succeeding the Maryland misappropriator vice president, Gerald had been a man too quiet, even to meet me.  Whoever succeeded Dicky’s mess could not be reelected.  So it didn’t matter to our mission.  But I learned to like Gerald.

When I first met him, on my return from China, he served up doughnuts from his desk in the oval office, as I sat in a Chinese chair in front of it.  He said he’d flown them in from the shop of a friend of his in Grand Rapids.

“Perks of the office,” he said.

Looking into his football-player face, I had a distinct impression that no special trip was made for that.  He had a sense of irony that perfectly matched his big grin, and later I met the doughnut-maker, who was black.

“I’m going to pardon Dicky,” said Gerald.  “That’s a perk of the office I can’t deny, or an honor to the office I have to accept, and it’s diplomatically essential to continuing what he and you and Klingmonger have done.  Klingmonger told me you helped him conceptualize the China-card, and that’s why I’m telling you what I’m going to do about Dicky, and why I accepted your request to direct central intelligence.  I’m also appointing Klingmonger Secretary of State, so you can keep working well together.”

I had known my stature, in the party and now internationally, would have Gerald pass my request to Klingmonger for consideration, and I had known that Klingmonger would tell Gerald enough of the story to produce the outcome Gerald explained in this first meeting between him and me.  But I was a little surprised at what he said next.

“I’m a quiet man,” he said.  “I’m a team player, and I know how to delegate authority and how to accept advice from my superiors in expertise, regardless of their rank.  So I’m not going to meddle much in what you and Klingmonger do.  But I think we need to devote some resources to Afghanistan.  I think we have a powder-keg there.”

“I agree,” I said.  “What’s your view?”

“Dumping the monarchy,” he said, “was a stroke of genius, and not the doing as much as how it was done, fomenting rumors of a coup to prompt removal of the batteries from all the tanks in the country, except the palace guard brigade while the king was on vacation in Italy, then using those twelve tanks to take over the country.  It’s a good thing so few Americans can spell Afghanistan, or someone might have reported in the media that we trained the commander of that brigade here, in the good old U.S.A.”

“I thought that was kind of tidy, myself,” I said.

He looked at me and laughed with that big grin.

“And nobody was hurt, either,” he continued, “although I heard one of the tanks put a pretty big hole in the bedroom wall of the prince we spread the rumors about, and I heard his house was about two blocks from our embassy.  I heard one Afghan soldier shot a foot of his own, but I suspect that that’s a silly rumor.  But, anyway, things seem to me to be backfiring there.  And the Afghans I’ve met seem wonderfully gracious.”

“No question in my mind,” I said.  “Things are backfiring, and not for the people.  Have you eaten the bread they bake there, in their little stone ovens hewn beneath their shops?  It’s as rich as these wonderful donuts from Grand Rapids, maybe more!”

“Yes,” said Gerald.  “And I didn’t choose my words ‘powder keg’ and ‘backfiring’ lightly.  Afghanistan is as hard to change as China, a circumstance I have no doubt you understand.  But, at the same time, Afghanistan is more volatile or explosive, less civilized, more wild.  Most Afghans didn’t much care that they had a monarchy, and they care less who dumped it.  So what we’ve done with our coup is to open an inroad for Soviet influence.  We were providing military training-aid, but mainly to train ourselves.  You know I don’t mean mainly for military coups.  I hope.”

“To see how the trainees compare their equipment to ours,” I said.

“Exactly,” said Gerald.  “And their equipment is nearly all Soviet, because the Soviets have been providing them military materiel-aid for years, while we’ve been restricting our aid to that training.  Afghans are quite material people, and now Soviet influence dominates their government, the government we let happen with our coup.”

“And that hotbed is between oil and the Indian subcontinent,” I said, “as far as I can see and understand what you’re saying, or what I hear you saying.  And I hear you suggesting you have a solution, an answer in which all can work.”

“I knew you’d see the signifying fact, and so I’m asking you to work with Klingmonger.  You’re the expert, and Klingmonger understands that.”

 

I felt my plate already too full, but I did see the significance, beyond oil to imperialism.  The Holy Land was out of control because colonialism was almost over, because England and France had figured out that they could more efficiently and effectively serve their commercial interests by soliciting support from governments to commercialize their countries than by being the governments and paying all the overhead inherent in that, from fighting the wars to feeding the poor.  Military and economic aid would be cheaper than being the military and the economy.  That’s why the French relinquished Egypt and why the British relinquished Canaan.  And it’s why England acquiesced at last to Gandhi’s civil disobedience.  It’s the least of his lessons.

It was a new world order.  Only the Soviet gerontocracy didn’t know it.  And, clear as daylight, Gerald was right about one thing.  Afghanistan was a political fireworks-display, and it had been since before the Afghans built their own great wall, to keep out Genghis Khan.  Selling antique firearms remains a major source of revenue in Kabul, and tribes and other factions use antique firearms otherwise, to shoot anyone inhospitable, almost as a hobby.  The Viet Cong guerillas organized themselves for a purpose, but Afghans seldom seek either organization or purpose.  They kill for reasons westerners watch movies, for hope of a brave new world.  Conundrum bought a Khyber rifle there, on one of his pointless boondoggles.

“What do you think?” I asked Klingmonger, calling on him at Foggy Bottom to congratulate him on his promotion.  I was pleased to note that he didn’t call my appointment a promotion, although he did say he welcomed the opportunity to work more closely with me.  He considered the Afghanistan question with a few seconds of his finger-pressing.  Then he dropped his fat right hand to his desk.

“Piece of cake,” he answered.  “Wait until the Soviets escalate their interests to an imperialist level.  Then boost the quagmire factor.  Make it their Vietnam.”

One thing nice about working with intelligent people is that all you have to do to get them to do the right thing is to present the facts, unless they have a private interest in doing the wrong thing.  But, then, having such interests isn’t intelligent.

“Just don’t tell me what you’re doing,” said Klingmonger.  “I’ll see it, anyway.”

            I felt the same way, since a main interest of mine was to focus on Mikhail’s position, and I thought of Afghanistan as a distraction.  But I also saw the situation as a serendipitous strengthening of our hand against the hardliners, if we could make them look like fools in a nation where poppies were the main cash-crop, where children didn’t wear diapers, so they could fertilize the land.  And I also saw that doing that would be easy in a land whose people played football on horseback, using a decapitated calf as the ball.  So I just had to use some of our Fits assassination tactics to create a little catalyst.  But this time I did it quite overtly.  I sent it straight to Congress.

            I asked Linden to find me a drunken hardly conscionable congressman with some bravado and a little influence in appropriations and intelligence.  He found me a Texas Democrat named Charlie who perfectly fit the bill, and with maybe more bravado than we needed.  Charlie loved the idea and never had to meet with me, taking Linden’s suggestion as a cause of his own.  He pushed appropriations for the CIA to do the job and traveled to Afghanistan to try to oversee.  Beyond that, all I had to do was make sure my CIA friends knew what I wanted.  The rest is history.

            And that was about it for Gerald’s presidency, all the major history of it.  He pardoned Dicky and strengthened the positions of me and Klingmonger, to keep the China-card face-up on the table.  And he quarterbacked the play to turn Afghanistan into the Soviet Union’s Vietnam.  And he imported wonderful doughnuts to the Whitehouse.

 

            Me, however, I had to put out a couple of less international fires during Gerald’s presidency.  I didn’t do much within the CIA in that short official-time as Director of Central Intelligence, because I’d been working closely with the agency most of that life.  So I took some time to settle some internal and personal dust, with a mixture of emotions.

            First was getting rid of Jimmy Huffa, and that was essential to guaranteeing Gerald’s successor.  Fits Jr’s reputation was still the strongest factor in the popularity of the Democrat party, and we had decided on another Jimmy to succeed Gerald.  I shouldn’t say we, because Theresa had decided on her own, while I just went along.

            Theresa and I met in Detroit, in a diner near the river and near the Renaissance Center, the site of Slavey’s final speech this trip.  We met without Raymond or her mother, so we’d be able to discuss our more plainly eternal situation.  I ordered a banana-split, and Theresa ate a chocolate sundae, although it was Saturday.

            “Norma’d feel at home here,” said Theresa.

            “Yeah,” I said.  “How have you been doing?”

            “Fine,” she said.  “But I miss Pine Level, and I have an idea.”

            She licked some ice-cream from her spoon with her lips, and she smiled looking at me while she did it.  I knew from that that, whatever her idea was then, it would have to come about in fact.  Her gaze was clear and bright and certain, no space there for doubt.  It was plainly down to Earth.

            “A Georgia peanut-farmer,” she said.  “You need a president to fill in between that Grand Rapids boy and you.  How about a Georgia peanut-farmer.”

            I knew better than to suggest that she might be out of her mind.

            “I trust you have someone in mind,” I said, shaking my head.

            “Jimmy,” she said.  “Everybody calls him Jimmy, and I’m not sure he knows his name is James.  After Fits Jr.’s and Linden’s and Dicky’s arrogance, that seems to me to be appropriate, to fit some bills long overdue.”

            “Yes,” I answered.  “That’s exactly what we need to follow Gerald.”

            “Not only that,” she added, “but his mother loves him, and he and his wife love each other.  He has a brother who drinks too much beer, but I don’t think many Earthlings will hold that against him, or against his brother.”

            “How about his more public résumé?” I asked.

            “Governor of Georgia,” she answered.

“That’s enough,” I replied.

“It’s more than enough,” she said.  “I think it’s time to blow the diehard-segregationist southern-Democrats out of the water, and that should help Republicans as well.  I’m still sick of how that Fits Jr. creep weaseled into the presidency by hooking himself to Oliver’s coattails, and I’m still sicker of the southern Democrats, George Wallace, Lester Maddox.  Hypocrisy still keeps their bigotry in their party.

“And now the cancer’s spreading to the party of Lincoln.  That scumbag Strom Thurmond jumped ship like a rat, thinking his segregationist notions were sinking in the party of Jefferson Davis when Fits Jr. and Linden let the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act slide through congress on Birmingham’s and Selma’s momentum.  Not much he can do by himself, since he’s too stupid to have seen through his own leaders’ hypocrisy, but others are following him.  Already, Republicans have inherited the southern-Democrats’ reputation, and somewhat rightly so.  Maybe Jimmy can inspire Democrats to sincerity, and Republicans will have to catch back up.”

All this she said, over that chocolate sundae, chewing the cherry and the crushed nuts, stirring the whipped cream into the chocolate, as I saw the no-denying in her onyx eyes.  Theresa had wished to vote for Franklin Delano Roosevelt, but the southern-Democrats and other segregationists had denied her that right through all his elected terms.  Now it was her turn, and so her candidate would preside.

He could preside for just one term, but for some grand accomplishments, of which Theresa would be proud.  Earth is a wonderful place for conversation, if its inhabitants would just take the time to listen to each other.

 

But there was no talking to that other Jimmy.  He was too busy huffing over how important he’d become by promising a better life to workers and getting paid for it, in the momentum of Fits Jr.’s father.  He was now president of the union Sugar Fits had founded, and he’d huffed up his ego to the point where he thought he might soon be president of the United States.  That was absurd, but he could be a spoiler, and he tried.

Our machine was in motion.  Linden, who never did like Fits Jr., threw his influence for our candidate wherever he could, and Theresa still had her NAACP ties and was now working as a secretary to a Michigan congressman, in the more-and-more-motivating motor city, now more integrated than Manhattan.  We knew we could do it.  We had the technology.  We hoped to rebuild.  This was a step.

The southern Democrats considered our Jimmy naïve but harmless, and they thought they could control him after he moved into the Whitehouse.  But the Sugar Fits Democrats were depending more now on Huffa’s labor-union and other such scams to win the vote.  For the black vote, they were depending mostly on the Fits Jr. momentum.  So we had to work to balance that, to keep some motes from eyes.

Having no orders outside his ego to campaign, Huffa scrambled a plan of his own.  He called on Jimmy, desecrating the quiet front-porch of Jimmy’s mother’s home outside Plains, Georgia.  There, he offered Jimmy union-support if Jimmy would place him second on the ticket, to be his vice president.  Jimmy looked across the peanut fields and escorted Huffa to his waiting limousine.  He didn’t deign to answer.

“They call me a peanut-brain,” he said, at a dinner-party in Atlanta, when another union-leader said he’d heard of such consideration.  “That guy’s a cashew.”

Beatrice and I shared that dinner, and I buttonholed Jimmy after.

“Has he tried to contact you?” I asked.

“He came to my mother’s home,” Jimmy answered.

“I’m sorry,” I said.  “I’ll see if I can do something.”

“This is getting hard to bear,” said Beatrice in our sharing.

Huffa huffed himself into extreme high blood-pressure when he heard what Jimmy had said about him to his cohort, and he decided to resort to his old tactics.  I had underestimated his audacity, supposing he’d never mention our meeting about Remington Bosworth, because of his part in it.  But his poker was nearly as bad as his ethics, and so he tried to bluff me.  I hadn’t expected it, but I wasn’t surprised.

He called Langley and got through to me by making absurd suggestions.  Lev told me that he’d once made his way to K. Buggen Goober’ office at FBI headquarters by suggesting that he knew something about the relationship between the Cuban missile crisis and the Fits Jr. assassination.  Huffa made a similar trip to me by telephone.

“This is Huffa,” he said, when I answered the phone.  “El Dorado, Wednesday, 2:00 p.m.  You know I know something.  Be there.”

He hung up, and I suppressed an intense urge to call Jimmy, to ask him exactly how he felt about cashews.  Then I thought through this whole part of the situation, which now extended over more than a decade, and I decided to make the meeting.

Again, 2:00 p.m., Wednesday, the club was closed, and Huffa sat drinking alone.  The El Dorado hardly glittered now, looking as it had those years ago, but more worn.  No musical instruments were on the bandstand.  The club had become just another crumby bar.  Again its front door was not locked.  I sat at his table, saying nothing.

“You can get me on the ticket,” opened Huffa.  “I know a CIA director has connections bigger than his party, and I know that Republican klutz can’t win.  So, if you get me on the ticket, I’ll be vice president.  If you don’t, you won’t be anything.”

“Are you threatening to kill me?”

“I’m threatening to rat you out!”

I thought the situation through again.  Maybe he was bluffing, and maybe not.  But, either way, the world had had way far too much of huffing.  And, like Fits Jr., he was now out of control, and sooner or later he’d make himself more dangerous than he’d proved himself working his way up through his corrupt and often murderous concerns.  Best to get it done, I thought.  And so I did, myself.  Without Theresa.

“Listen,” I said.  “You have a choice.  You may remember you told me that trash is a matter of opinion, relative to appropriateness, to being out of place.”

“What’s your point?” he asked, sloshing his dregs as he had those years before.

“My point is that my opinion is that you’re trash.  My opinion is that, as soon as I walk out that door, you’ll follow me out and walk around back and climb into the dumpster with the trash waiting there.  My opinion is that a trash truck will arrive a few minutes later, pick you up with that other trash, dump you in with some more, and crush you down, until you’re dead.  Then it’ll take you to your rightful place.”

“I didn’t know you had such a great sense of humor,” snuffed Huffa.

But, as quickly as he said it, a drop of sweat appeared on the bottom of his chin, and his hands now sloshed the dregs in his glass as his will seemed to me not a factor.  In a few seconds, his whole face was wet with sweat, and the glass collapsed in his hand holding it, and the hand began to bleed.  The blood mixed with spilled scotch.

“Damn!” he said, his voice now shaking, too.  “I hate it when that happens.”

“Remember,” I replied.  “As soon as I walk out that door.  If you wait any longer, you’ll have some other guests, and they won’t be so nice to you.  Also remember that you have a family, and know that life doesn’t stop here for anyone, except you.  You’re right in your opinion, that I have some connections.  Some were your friends.”

He didn’t speak again.  I bade farewell.

I was bluffing, and Huffa is dead, and I went on to more important things.  That was not my favorite way to be, and I learned from it how humans shake when they’re ashamed.  I don’t mean Huffa’s fear.  I mean my shame.

 

I didn’t feel I could face Beatrice that day, and so I checked into a hotel and drove to Ben’s apartment, after I drove far enough into the Mohave to switch in isolation the license plates on the rental-car, back to the rental-car company’s.

“Dad!” said Ben at his door.  “What a surprise!”

After the hugging, he kept smiling and staring at me.

“I can’t believe it,” he said, but then, “Oh, crap.”

“Crap, what?” I asked.  “What did you forget?”

“I forgot to tell you that Quincy’s got a problem.”

“Oh, crap,” I couldn’t help but say.  “What kind of problem?”

“Oh, no big deal,” said Ben.  “He was arrested, for drunk driving.”

I looked at my youngest son in wonder and couldn’t think of a thing to say.

“I’m sorry, Dad,” said Ben.  “I couldn’t help it.  He’s alright, but he wants to see you.  He didn’t know where you were, and he called here.  He asked me if I knew where you were.  As if you’d ever be here.  But you are here.  I’ll be darned.”

“Can I use your phone?” I said, laughing because I couldn’t help it, either.

“Sure,” he answered, tossing me a cordless one from the kitchen bar-window.

“Where’s Chet?” I asked, as I pushed the button with Quincy’s name beside it.

“He’s at work,” Ben answered.  “He doesn’t have bankers’ hours, like I do.”

“Thanks for calling, Dad,” said Quincy, when he answered the phone and heard my voice.  “It’s no big deal, but I’d like to talk with you about it, if you can find the time.  Of course I’ll understand if you’re too busy.  Where are you?”

“I’m at Ben’s,” I said, and I started laughing again, or something like it.

“I’m glad you find it funny,” said Quincy.  “What are you doing at Ben’s?”

“I don’t find it funny,” I said, but I was laughing harder now, and Ben was looking at me like I’d at last lost it.

“Okay,” I said, getting as serious as a CIA director who had just killed Jimmy Huffa.  “Where are you?  In Houston?”

“Yes,” he said.

“Tomorrow soon enough?”

“Sure,” he said.  “Thanks, Dad.”

I gestured to Ben that I was going to use the phone again and pushed the button for his mother.  She answered it before its second ring.

“I’m going to stop in Houston on my way home,” I said.

“Good,” she said.  “You’d better straighten that boy out.  Where are you now?”

“I’m at Ben’s,” I said.

“What are you doing at Ben’s?” she asked.

“It’s a long story,” I said, stopping myself from laughing again.  “I’ll bore you with some of it when I get home.  My meeting here went as I expected, and I just thought I’d stop and see the son of my right hand.”

“Well,” she said.  “Don’t you give your other son the back of any hand.”

“I won’t,” I said.  “I love you.


 

 

 

 

Chapter 18

Huckleberry Finn

 

I had dinner that night with Ben and Chet in their apartment.  Ben did the cooking, and all of us did a lot of laughing.  At the hotel, the Ambassador, where Dicky had killed Robert Fits and I had once seen Nancy Wilson sing, I checked WMN for news of Huffa, and found nothing yet.  Next morning, I returned the car to the airport and flew to Houston.  If anyone missed Huffa, it still wasn’t in the newspapers, either.

Quincy had a big bachelor-condo in a central-city high-rise.  Ben’s and Chet’s apartment could fit in it two or three times.  Quincy answered the door, and he asked me to come in, opening the door wide with his left hand, waving me in with his right.  The gesture had become a habit for him, and I always imagined a cowboy hat in his waving hand.  My sons were very different from each other, and each great in his own way.

I plopped down on a modern sofa in the glare of the sun through the big windows and peered out into nothing but blue sky.  Quincy picked up a newspaper from the coffee-table and stuffed it into a trashcan beside some bookshelves.  It didn’t look like any other trashcan I had seen.  But it plainly served the purpose for the paper.

“Want a drink, Dad?” asked Quincy.  “Whoops.  Not the right question.”

“Alright,” I said.  “Tell me the story.  I see you’re up for it.  And I’d like a beer.”

Quincy looked at me much as Ben had looked at me while I was laughing on his telephone.  He went to his kitchen, which also had a window to the living room, with barstools at it.  He opened a bottle of Budweiser and set it on the counter of the window without looking at what he was doing.  He returned through the door to the living room and moved the beer to the coffee table.  He returned to the kitchen and brought himself back another beer.  He sat in a big white chair that matched the sofa.  Then he talked.

“I was drunk.  I was driving.  I was speeding.  The police stopped me.  I was alone and bailed myself out with a credit-card, after the four hours the police said it takes to get sober.  I took a taxi home, because they impounded the car, and I tried to call you in the morning.  Mom said you were in Los Angeles.  I called my brother.”

“Anything else?” I asked.  “You didn’t hurt anybody?”

“No,” he said.  “I didn’t hurt anybody.”

“Is it going to happen again?”

“No,” he said.  “It isn’t.”

“Sounds simple,” I said.  “Why did you need so much to talk to me?”

“Great expectations,” said Quincy.  “I want to be part of what you’re doing.”

“Don’t worry about it,” I said.  “Twice, a problem.  Once, a fluke.”

He didn’t seem to me to take that answer as final.  So I went on.

“Can I ask you another question?” I asked.

“It’s what I hope you’re here for,” he answered.

“Whatever happened to that pretty girl Laura, the one you introduced us to at Harvard.  We thought you were in love, and your mom was ready to start knitting booties and increasing our investment in photo-albums.  I remember your mom asking you about her a few times later, but your answers were short.  All that’s years ago now, all of it, I guess.  I guess we gave up.  What happened?”

“She went back to Midland.  She’s the librarian for the high school.”

“So you know what happened to her.  I want to know more about you.”

“Oh, I guess I took your advice to heart,” he said.  “Well, it wasn’t your advice.  It was advice you said a friend of yours gave you, to get your feet wet before getting married.  Okay, alright, I see your point, in this.”

“What point?” I asked.

“You got your feet wet in the Pacific Ocean.  I got mine wet in a drunk-tank.”

“That wasn’t my point,” I said.  “But I’m very happy that it’s yours.”

“Was that a Skull and Bones friend?” asked Quincy.  “Have I met him?”

“No,” I said.  “Lev is far beyond Skull and Bones and hard to find from time to time.  I guess you might meet him someday, if he thinks it’ll do you some good.  He advises me on how to behave in what many call polite society.  I mean how to tread lightly among bigots and hypocrites.  Thank God and your mom that you’re not one of those.  Anyway, I’m glad we had this conversation.

“You’ll be alright.  You are alright.”

“I’m going to call her,” he said.  “Laura.”

“Good,” I said.  “That’ll please your mother.”

 

Quincy knew it pleased me too, and it eased my facing Beatrice, after what I’d done.  After a couple of days, Huffa’s family and business accomplices admitted publicly that they didn’t know where in hell he was.  The FBI made a serious search for him, to the extent of once visiting the El Dorado.  But, of course, he wasn’t there, and they didn’t check the dump.  Only I on Earth knew what I’d done, ever.

            But few knew much about any of this, and the nation had not forgiven the Republican party for Dicky’s dufusness.  So Gerald was out, and Jimmy was in, and few would see the significance of that, either.  Jimmy was a genuine gentleman, and Roselyn a genuine lady.  Their bumping me out of Langley was a mistake.  But I understand.

Jimmy replaced me with an Annapolis buddy of his, an admiral who simply didn’t understand coversion, as neither do I on my best days.  Worse, the admiral tried to carry Jimmy’s ideals into the CIA, and the old operatives there bridled as they had at Fits Jr., but with the additional notion that an admiral should know better.  Fits Jr. had tried to tell them how to do their job, but the admiral was trying to tell them how to feel about their job.  They were soldiers following orders, and the one freedom a soldier has is that he isn’t paid to feel.  So they particularly resented that coming from an admiral.

I, however, admired Jimmy’s and Roselyn’s ideals, which they dauntlessly tried to actualize through their presidency, at the cost of their having no second term, as I knew they would.  Part of why I asked Linden to do all he could to get them in was to actualize that idealism, and part was that they’d surely be out in time for Mikhail and me to move.

Jimmy’s and Rosalyn’s main ideal was feminism, and it was also their main road out of their presidency.  A lot of people said Jimmy was another Fits Jr., and that helped much in his winning of their presidency, as my John Wayne impersonation helped me into mine.  But claiming Jimmy was like Fits Jr. was stupider than most falsehoods, being serendipitously false but grotesquely false.  Jimmy got into a little trouble by saying in an interview for Playboy magazine that he had committed adultery in his heart.   But Rosalyn was always in his heart, and together they did more for women’s rights than has any other presidency.  I don’t know if they knew the economics, but they went ahead.

How feminism cost Jimmy and Rosalyn a second term of presidency is basic economics, supply and demand.  Since the unemployment rate is based not on how many people are not working but on how many people are both not working and seeking to, encouraging women’s confidence to seek employment increased the unemployment rate.  Next, by finding jobs, women were able to buy more, demanding products they hadn’t been able to buy before, and more production in general.  A result was temporary pain.

Of course manufacturers couldn’t catch up immediately, either for the lines the women most wanted or for the more generally desired products.  So, as economists like myself basically say it does, the lagging of supply behind demand increased prices, what we call inflation. Thus we had stagflation, the only time in history when inflation and unemployment increased simultaneously.  And another of Jimmy’s ideals didn’t help the United States economy much either.  He worked with his heart for the Holy Land.

Successors of Ben-Gurion and Nasser, successors of the leaders who had inherited Egypt and Canaan from the French and the British, ultimately by way of the rationality of ending  colonial imperialism without the care one might expect the sense to signify, met at Camp David by Jimmy’s diplomacy.  The name of the site was symbolic, reminding everyone directly participating there of events and persons important to the history of strife in that region of Earth.  Christians claim the Israelite King David to be a direct ancestor of Jesus’ Earth father, and Zionists initiated the war of terror at the King David Hotel, killing 92 British and Palestinian Canaanites, many of them nurses.  The meeting was at Camp David, on land named Mary.  The history is long and hard in this.  But plain to anyone who looks.

One of the participants at the meeting was the founder of the organization that had bombed that hotel, and now he was prime minister of Israel.  Jimmy was a Christian, and one of the few persons I’ve known who have lived up to the claim to be so, and the third participant was the president of the nation that had enslaved Israel, kicking the whole thing off.  People all around Earth called it a historic meeting.  That’s for sure.

Nothing ever came of it but words.  But that meeting’s words are carried now as banners, high memories of the persons present.  Menachem Begin, by then the Israeli prime minister, continued his Zionism in the face of plain sense, and never lost a beat in his regression.  Anwar Sadat, the Egyption president, died in a hail of bullets from people calling themselves Muslims thinking he had spoken too politely with that old Israeli terrorist.  Jimmy lost his and Rosalyn’s presidency, while no American denied that he was a nice guy.  All are martyrs to the cause of peace, on Earth in their separate sense of life.  All Earthlings have been, day after day and millennium after millennium.

Many thought the economic woes of Jimmy’s presidency were because of diplomatic failure in the Middle East, because of Jimmy’s inability to control OPEC, the Organization of the Oil-Exporting Countries, and they were partly right.  But most citizens of the United States neither knew nor cared enough to try to think of whence the economic woes had risen.  They just knew they didn’t have a job, or they just knew that bread was costing much, or they just knew that Ronny’d been in movies.  So they threw Jimmy and their economic prospects to the wind.

So I became Vice President, somewhat quietly on the loud but soft coattails of Ronny, when we had Mikhail where he needed to be to finish his part of our job.  Of  course the last note before the finale was letting Ronny have the nominal presidency, leaving me sixteen years of actual presidency and sixteen for our sons, were we to need that much more time.  It was a forty-year symphony Mikhail and I and Skull and Bones had orchestrated well, within the peace and patience of Beatrice and our other friends, and we finished it excellently also, but not without a few glitches, here and there.

The campaign went exactly as the party had planned it.  Ronny and I ran against each other in the primaries, to give my résumé more popular recognition.  I expressed disagreement with Ronny’s economics, to the extent of calling his views voodoo economics, thinking of New Orleans.  Then we made a public deal, letting Ronny run for president with me as his running-mate, getting votes from people who disagreed with him.  As Fits Jr. had done in the sixties, we won by broadening our voter-base.

Then the presidency ran as we had planned it, with me taking direct responsibility for the National Security Council, assuming de facto the responsibilities Klingmonger had officially for Dicky.  We put Texas friends of ours and others of our choosing into powerful staff positions, and Ronny slept about twelve hours a night and in many of the meetings he attended.  Besides Bedtime for Bonzo, Ronny’s job was mostly to make speeches.  He was both an actor and sincere.  So everyone loved him.

 

Lev, meanwhile, spent a summer traveling around the United States working on carnival rides.  He had long wondered how Gypsies lived, and he had an affection for carousels, for horses going merrily around.  He put the two together for some fun, and told me about it.  At one fair, he saw Ronny deliver a speech.

“It was in Springfield,” Lev said, “at the Illinois State Fair.  I thought it was neat, because Springfield claims to be Lincoln’s birthplace.  You know, I should have come and tried to call on Lincoln while I was alive.  He was a great spirit, a genuine poet.

“Anyway, Ronny spoke to a grandstand full of people, full of Illinois farmers.  He arrived in a limousine, but he spoke surrounded by bails of hay, and he took off his jacket and rolled up his sleeves before he opened his mouth.  Then he told a joke.

“'A traveling salesman,' he said, 'was traveling through this great state of Illinois, at 55 miles per hour, as is the law.'

“He pronounced that last phrase loudly, because a movement was on to increase his nation’s speed limit beyond what Jimmy’s congress had set after the OPEC situation in the seventies.  I prefer sledges and sleighs and traps, myself.  But that’s just me.

“'And,' Ronny said, 'the salesman saw a chicken in the road in front of him, not trying to cross the road but running down it in front of the salesman’s car.  As the salesman caught up with the chicken, the chicken speeded up.

“'So, the salesman speeded up.  Forgetting the law, he followed the chicken.  And again the chicken speeded up, and again the salesman speeded up.  Then the chicken turned off the main road, onto a dusty side-road.

“'The salesman slammed on his brakes and turned down the side-road to follow the chicken, but the chicken was now out of his sight, over a hill.  The salesman drove over the hill, but still he didn’t see the chicken.

“'But, in his sight, was a little house with paint flaking off it, and a man rocking on the front porch.  His thumbs in the straps of his bib-overalls, the man was looking down the road in the direction in which the chicken had run.

“'The salesman stopped his car in the farmer’s dusty drive and rolled down his window and asked the farmer if he’d seen a chicken running past there at about 75 miles per hour.  The farmer said he had indeed seen it.

“'"Yup," said the farmer.  "It’s one of mine."

“'"One of yours?" the salesman answered.  "Well, are my eyes playing tricks on me, or did that chicken have three legs?"

“'"Yup,” said the Farmer.  "I breed ‘em that way."

“'"Why?" the salesman felt compelled to ask.

“'"Because," said the Farmer.  "Ma likes the leg.  The boy likes the leg.  And I like the leg.  I had to."

“'"Well, my goodness," the salesman asked.  "That’s amazing.  How do those legs taste?"

“'"I don’t rightly know," the farmer answered.  "I haven’t been able to catch one yet."'

“After Ronny told that joke,” said Lev, “he told that grandstand full of farmers that he was going to cut off their crop-subsidies, and the farmers rose to their feet and applauded and shouted as though they were at a rock-concert.

 

“I saw you a few weeks later,” Lev told me then, before I thought of something to say about Ronny’s joke, “at the Oklahoma State Fair, in a morning before the fair was open for the day.  We, my carnie friends and I, heard somehow that you were coming, and a game-agent called Jimmy the Jag had word that you were going to visit his basketball-joint.  I know you remember, but I’ll tell you how it looked to us.

“Jimmy wandered all over the midway looking for a stuffed elephant to give you when you shot and made your basket, and he knew you’d make it because anybody could.  The basket was so close to the counter that kindergarteners could.  They made their money by giving cheap prizes.  The prizes cost less than the price to play.

“Carnies call games like that buildups.  They sucker you into playing more by letting you trade the cheap prize in for less-cheap prizes, as you pay and play more until you have something you can brag about at home.  But Jimmy the Jag just wished you’d make one shot, so he could give you the huge stuffed elephant he’d found.

“So there we all were.  I was sitting on the counter of a balloon-dart game a friend of mine operated, and your secret service was sitting in a little train for taking people around the midway.  In a panama hat, the carnival-owner led you into the roped-off area and up to Jimmy’s joint, and Jimmy handed you a ball.  You missed four in a row.

“I don’t know what your problem was, because I know how good you are at baseball and horseshoes, but you were embarrassing Jimmy, and that wasn’t easy to do.  Carnies had plenty of cause to call him a jag, the word being carnie-talk for conscienceless.  But, at last, you made a basket, on your fifth shot.

“Jimmy left the elephant where he’d put it, draped over his counter.  He reached up the wall, past the cheapest prizes but not to the top.  He grabbed a Yosemite Sam doll and handed it to you, without a smile but with a grin.  Your grin was your second expression there, as you turned away to the television cameras.

“A few yards away, you handed the Yosemite Sam doll to the carnival-owner, and I never told you about this, because it bothered me.  What on Earth were you thinking about?  What were you up to there and then?”

“I was up to the vice presidency,” I said.  “When you’re vice president, you behave as a vice president.  When I’m president, I’ll make some regulation-range basketball-shots on TV for you.”

 

But Ronny didn’t do subterfuge.  He was called the great communicator more because he said what he thought than because of how he said it.  He didn’t even conceal his contempt for how I did his job, as he didn’t practice the pretensions now taught in college communication classes, but rather persuaded by sincerity.

That that was unique is ridiculous, and indicates our problem.  Earthlings called it charisma, but it was sincerity, and horribly rare.  Hitler was also charismatic, and sincere while his horror was far worse than silly.  Hitler’s charisma killed millions in his lifetime and more by his inspiration later.  Ronny’s died in his sleep.

And it needed to.  Ronny, like Hitler, was a charmer.  But, similarly, he called pacifists grass-eating know-nothings.  I call that what humans call Hectoring, and it was Ronny’s main weakness as it was Achilles’, as it is of all the people who treat war or anything else as though it were a valid source of private pride.

Mikhail, with that blotch on his head, had hardly any charisma.  He made his way into position by subterfuge, by selectively agreeing with people whose presence he could hardly bear.  But he did make his way into position, exactly as he’d planned he would, and right on time.  That domino-theory of his worked well.

Brezhnev died two years into Ronny’s presidency.  Andropov assumed Brezhnev’s position, promoted from his directorship of the KGB, and dropped off two years after that.  By the end of my first term as vice president of the United States, Mikhail was president of the Soviet Union.  What a coincidence.

I won’t bore you with the details of how we shuffled drugs and weapons to get the hostages out of Iran and the Sandinistas out if Nicaragua, but I will tell you that the means were better than alternative means and that the end was best for all, and I wonder how baby-boomers didn't see how those means were necessary.

Why didn’t they see that the means were better than their alternatives, and why didn’t they see that the lieutenant-colonel and the admiral and the civilian nominally in charge of the National Security Council fell from power for what I did, while the press was reporting that I was over all in charge.

The answer is that you, the people of the United States of America, form your opinions without paying attention.  You insist, in your laziness, despite your freedom for education, that everyone has a right to his opinion, and you let democracy go to hell because thinking you’re right is more important to you than being right.

Meanwhile, I and my friends, who had no interest other than common decency and needed nothing from anyone, tried to help you clean your mess by methods always available to you.  We might have done more this trip, but the rules were that we couldn’t stay longer than one ordinary life of yours.

We can come back for other trips, if we leave you a generation of your ordinary own to develop what we try to show you.  But the best I could do, after you voted me out of your presidency, was to hand you over to my sons, to do their best as well.  So I began my presidency with that in mind.

 

On my inauguration day, after the last playing of “Hail to the Chief” as though I or anyone could lead a nation, while my darling Earth-wife was tending to our private quarters where we’d sleep in your Whitehouse, I called my Earth-sons to my Earth-office, yours shaped much like Arthur’s table.  I sat behind my desk, while my sons sat in French provincial chairs before it, chairs older than the Lady Liberty in New York Harbor.  I thought of the French and the British and the Italians and the Irish.  I thought of the Israelis and the Palestinians.  And the gangs of New York and L.A.

I thought of Afghans and Genghis Kahn, and Tiananmen Square and Formosa and Red Square, and the Tokyo tower and the Eiffel tower and the Empire State building, and the Watts towers and the depths of Dachau.  And, thinking of what ever happened to Amelia Earhart, I thought of love and honey and milk and ears that hear or don’t and harts as stags or does or fawns, and sea urchins and coral reefs and how the sky is blue, however we call colors, whatever we call.  The yellow of the sun.

I thought of maple-leaves, and the seeds that spawn the trees, and of children making them scream, and I thought of how such play has produced saxophones, and how it all can turn to truth or lies.  But, at hand, before me, were my sons, as the aroma of roses wafted into my Earth-mind through French windows, closed now mostly for the winter, waiting for the spring.  At least my sons were not imagination.

“Welp,” said Ben.  “You did it.”

“Yup,” said I.  “We surely did.”

“How does it feel?” asked Quincy.

“Lonely,” I answered.  “Thanks for coming.”

“Dad,” said Ben.  “I know you talk to us and tell us how you feel, but you talk about so many things I don’t know what you feel most strongly for.  I mean, I know you feel most strongly for Mom, but what about the rest of the world.”

“Well, you’re next,” I said.  “Whether you know it or not.”

“We know it,” said Quincy.  “He’s asking about your agenda.”

“Well,” I said, doing a little impersonation of Ronny, “Mikhail and I have to clean up this Cold War business, of course.  But a model for that is something that’s been going on for a whole lot longer, millennia in the face of all of Earth.”

“The Holy Land,” said Ben.

“Yes,” said I.  “And I don’t know what to do.  The Civil Rights movement is on track, and I think I can get Nelson out of prison and into power, and Manuel Noriega out of power and into prison.  Idi Amin’s already out of everybody’s way.  But what can I do in the Holy Land?  What can we do there?”

“Our oil connections give you a lot of influence in the area,” said Quincy.

“Oil wells don’t dig nearly as deep as the trouble in Canaan,” I said.

“You’re funny, Dad,” said Ben.  “Calling it Canaan.  I like that.”

“So do I,” said Quincy.  “What about what Jimmy started?”

“Those people are all gone, and nothing changed,” I answered.

“No,” I said.  “They’re not all gone.  Jimmy’s still working at it, and Yasser’s still there and waiting for a fair and even chance.  And, after all, I am the president of the United States, and I have two sons who care as much as I and Jimmy do.  So, do you remember you’ve agreed to govern California and Florida?”

“Yassuh, boss,” said Ben.

“You bet,” said Quincy.

“Well,” I said.  “We’ll have to start working on that.”

I looked at them, and they shrugged and nodded.

“Crap,” I said, looking at Ben.  “You know I don’t remember ever asking you what you learned in school.  Besides that I should have as your father, I guess it’s important to how you’ll handle being chief executives of the governments of two of the four most populous of the United States.  What do UCLA and Harvard teach political science and business administration majors?  Anything useful?”

Ben and Quincy looked at each other and grinned, then outright laughed.

“No, Dad,” said Ben.  “Don’t worry about it.  We wouldn’t have known how to answer you, anyway.  They teach a lot of details most of the students will never use in any job, and they teach some fundamentals that everyone should use in any job.”

“That’s right,” said Quincy.  “And you have given us some sound advice.  You told us to be sure and involve ourselves in extracurricular activities, and I learned from my extracurricular activities that most of the students scoff at those fundamentals.”

“That’s right,” agreed Ben.  “Quincy and I have talked about this, and he says the leadership fundamentals he learned in the Texas Air National Guard are the same as in his Harvard textbooks, and he told me most of our nation’s military ignores them, too.”

“It’s good to have a brother,” agreed Quincy.  “I wonder if I’d get a different perspective from a sister, to help me understand our mom, and Laura.  But maybe Ben and Chet can help with that."

“I see what you mean now, Dad,” answered Ben.  “Hypocrisy is stupid and counterproductive. That is, it’s evil.”

“How about political science?” I asked.

 

 

 

Chapter 19

Pride and Prejudice

 

My sons looked at each other again but didn’t laugh at that more etymologically fundamental question.  They were caring children, their mother’s sons.

“The same,” said Quincy.  “Ben told me his political science courses teach the same management principles I told him I’ve learned, and you know how much attention most politicians pay to them.  I’m sure they haven’t changed since you were flying.”

“I found,” I said, in keeping with their tone, “that the military accorded more with our training when we were in combat.  But tell me more about what you’re calling fundamentals, and tell me how the students scoffed when they weren’t in class.  I’m thinking that all of this might be fundamental.”

I don’t know how the language of this conversation turned so alien, to semantics so precisely cautious.  I was thinking of the importance of the office, but I don’t know how my sons fell into that line, into such basic lines of pretension.  Neither’d shown so much constraint in school.

“One,” said Ben, “is span of control.  You know, recognition that one person’s attention can’t be broad enough to supervise all the other persons in the world.  Attention and time are limited, and not recognizing that screws everything up.  It’s why kings have councils and presidents cabinets.”

“How did your fellow students have a problem with that?” I asked, now wondering at Ben’s mix of diction here.

“The face of it,” said Ben.  “They said that anyone who doesn’t know everything about what everyone under him is supposed to be doing shouldn’t be a manager.  Simple stupid arrogance, I guess.”

“I get a lot of that,” I said, remembering Fits Jr. and Jimmy Huffa, and Hitler and Stalin and Joshua and Saul of Tarsus, and David and Goliath, and myself.  “What else?”

“The bottom of that coin,” said Quincy, “is unity of command.  You know, recognition that trying to serve two masters screws everything up.  If one boss tells you to do one thing, and another boss tells you to do something else, you have to be your own boss to choose which boss you’d rather have chew you out.”

“How was that a problem for your school chums?” I asked, happy he was lightening a little also.

“The same face,” said Quincy.  “They thought that being a manager meant you should be able to boss around anyone under you.  And, worse, they thought organization charts should be secret.”

“I can see their point,” I said.  “If you delegate authority or take advice, you’re not God.  It’s a good thing people like them usually either learn better or get stuck in middle-management, but it’s a bad thing how much damage middle-managers can do.  And another bad thing is how much damage people have to do to their own integrity to get around such arrogant ignorant jerks, or often just to do some decent work.

“And you’re right.  Both of those principles are from military tradition.  Generals ordinarily directly supervise a staff of four or five, and chain of command requires that they don’t give orders to corporals or privates, and also that privates complain to the corporal supervising them first, not run screaming straight to a sergeant or a general.  And the organization of each United States military service is posted on walls of common hallways in the lowest-level headquarters, with pictures of commanders.  I wonder if your classmates knew that.  But I’m talking too much.  I should be listening.”

“No problem, Dad” said Ben.  “You’re just telling us what we told you.  It’s good for you to think out loud, and thanks for agreeing.  And the answer is that my classmates didn’t know it.  I didn’t know it until Quincy told me.”

 “They think patriotism is stupid,” said Quincy.

I now felt like I was preaching, and I was pleased my sons were lightening, but I kept the tone to see what they would say, in their mood against these loads of crap.

“So they fight for nothing but their own success,” I said.  “I see such Machiavellian crap in high-level politics also, but not without pretension of being otherwise, and that takes a lot of cleverness.  Being actually otherwise is easier and more powerful, besides more decent.  Cleverness can be stupid sometimes.”

My sons of Earth now bailed me out again, from my alienation.

“And that’s the most fundamental of the fundamentals, I think,” said Ben.  “Setting the example.  That’s why your position, as what much of Earth calls the leader of the free world, is the most important on Earth.  That’s even cliché for American parents, or they wish it be.  It’s an ideal that shouldn’t be compromised.”

“Wish it be?” I wondered.  “Who talks like that?”

“That’s right,” agreed Quincy.  “If you don’t set a standard of excellence, parents won’t be able in good conscience to wish that their children grow up to be president of the United States, and adults might follow you into the dust, with hope for posterity.”

“Exactly,” added Ben.  “Most Americans think all politicians are corrupt, and my fellow students followed that example, taught it to themselves out of class.  They laughed about it, saying they should pretend to set a good example, but didn’t much need to.”

“That’s right,” agreed Quincy.  “An extracurricular activity of mine was reading the book In Search of Excellence, which says that nothing is more fundamental to business than knowing in what business one is, knowing one’s primary mission.”

“And,” added Ben, “what my fellows thought was funny was their extracurricular idea that everyone is in the business of selling hogwash for money, that everyone’s primary mission is to fill their own pockets, to staff beach-houses with harems, e.g.”

“It’s like saying that money can buy you love,” agreed Quincy.  “That’s the example our fellow political-science and business-administration students said we can set to lead the world, because they think it’s what parents wish for their children.”

“They just need to look at Norma Jean,” said Ben.  “An extracurricular activity of mine was reading a book about her.  If people wish to know whether money can buy you love, all they have to do is look at her.  But even Californians ignore that.”

“Yeah,” said Quincy.  “I don’t get it, but I know that people pay a lot more attention to what they want than to what they need for their happiness, and so they wish to be like greedy miserable political and business executives.”

“And they set that example for their children,” Ben concluded.

            “I miss our little house in Midland,” offered Quincy for us all.

            Well, for now, I was content with them, and so I stopped my talk.  I considered mentioning the pedophiles in the priesthood and the rapists at the Air Force Academy.  Maybe hypocrisy and the drive toward oppressing others by one’s wishes can carry anything one thinks one wants, all the way from the military to theology.  “Onward Christian Soldiers” seemed to me a song to sing, but what my sons had said was sad enough for then.  Yet Quincy had another thing to say.

“Smugness,” he said.  “The leader trait that they most sought was smugness.  My fellow students wished most to be able to care about nothing at all for anyone else.  They wished to be able to stick their fingers in their noses and ears and eyes and show everyone around them that ces autres are out of the question, that no one not a manager has a mind or heart worth considering.  They wish to indicate that only they are in charge.”

“Amen,” said Ben.  “I call it callousness.  But there was something that I liked a lot in school.  The poor kids, the ones there on scholarships, not because of their parents’ money but because of their own brains, bought the textbook principals and studied hard.  And we haven’t mentioned the most important principal, communication.

“I know you were director of central intelligence and that that’s about secrecy.  But the best way to get something done is to let people know what needs to be done and to let them know what they need to know to do it.  Lies, secrecy, are for people who have something to hide, something of which they’re rightly ashamed.

“Dishonesty is for people who have nothing right in themselves to offer, people who can’t compete on an open plain.  It’s for people who ignore all, except what serves their private greed.  It’s for stupid people”

“I know,” I said.  “Intelligence needs to be shared.”

“I know,” said Quincy.  “I remember Mom reading The Jungle Books to us.

“I know,” said Ben.  “I remember the Master-Words.”

“We be of one blood,” at least we three said in unison.  “Ye and I.”

 

What an accomplishment, that culmination in my presidency.  The Soviet Union gone, and the Cold War done, with no shots fired.  The wall was down in Berlin, and Solidarity was solidly up and in charge in Poland, and we got a few other little things done while we were at it.  Theresa’s dear friend Nelson was out of jail and well on his way to his own presidency in South Africa, and Noriega was in jail beneath the Miami federal courthouse, for example.  Least of all, fat cat Idi Amin was in exile in Saudi Arabia.  My OPEC friends at last gave him a place to wait to die.

Meanwhile, fans of Fits and ralliers for Ronny said it was all a coincidence, all that happening in those four years.  They said that such changes occurred no more quickly than the building of Rome, that events of one presidency were at best momentum from previous presidencies.  Well, they were right in saying that such missions take more than four or eight years, but they were wrong in not looking to see how it happened, through all the currents not called presidential.

We could have failed.  When the Soviet hardliners kidnapped Mikhail, we could do nothing but rally our few powerful and reasonable friends in Russia to point out to the hardliners that their country had progressed to a point of no return, to the point where the only alternative to going forward was total political and economic chaos that would bring all the people and all the leaders into the dust there together.

Passing that crisis surprised us all, and delighted us profoundly.  It delighted me to the depth of my soul, not only because it was key to my team’s political mission this time here, but also because it showed that reason sometimes can prevail on Earth, that sometimes humans can find and make some reasonable sense.  I made a special trip to Detroit while that was going on, just to hold Theresa’s Earthly hands.

But other glitches didn’t fare so well.  Charlie did well in turning Afghanistan into the Soviet Union’s Vietnam, but it became Russia’s Vietnam.  I had overreached in Kuwait, setting up Saddam Hussein to overween and give us a reason to get rid of him, a Soviet client.  The Soviet hardliners had pointed to that situation as an excuse to get rid of Mikhail, calling it American imperialism, from his weakness.

Then, while the American public of the United States was screaming for Saddam Hussein’s blood, I had to stop that effort upon the reclamation of Kuwait.  The alternative to stopping there would have been the Soviet hardliners' turning the Baltic resistance into another Prague Spring or Tiananmen Square.  They might have argued to the United Nations that defending imperialism is better than initiating it.

Had that happened, I’d have had to be dead of Earthly old age without the Cold War won.  I set forth some initiatives in the CIA to pick up the pieces in Afghanistan and Iraq peacefully, but the glitches had already cost me my presidency, leaving the next presidency to follow through, or not.  Presidents can’t totally control the CIA, but they can throw some monkey-wrenches into the works.  Jimmy’s admiral did little damage, but a president might do more, if acting directly, like Fits Jr.  So I expected Quincy’d have a lot of messes to clean.  So, as a lame duck, I gave him a call.

“Come here, my son,” I said.  “We have to talk.”

And we split seats as I and Gerald had.  I sat behind the desk where Fits Jr. had sat as his son Little Fits peered from beneath it, for the cameras.  My son Quincy sat in the chair in which I had sat accepting Gerald’s view and his doughnuts.

“It would have been nice,” I said, “if we hadn’t had to let that sadist Saddam Hussein slide as far as we let him, in order to save Mikhail and the Baltic states from overthrow and invasion.  And it would have been nice to have done it all without hurting the United States economy.  And it might have been nice to serve a second term.  But nothing’s perfect, I am told.  And you’ll now have a mess to clean.  How’s Laura?”

“She’s beautiful,” said Quincy.

“Is she afraid?” I asked.

“A little,” he answered.

“Are you afraid,” I asked.

“I’m more afraid than Laura is,” he said.

“Good,” I said.  “You need to be.  You don’t need it to keep you honest.  You’ve always had the right compulsion in that direction.  But it’ll keep you hard at work, and you have a lot of hard work to do.  I haven’t done nearly enough.”

“You’ve done miracles,” said Quincy.  “My generation rose with the Cold War as an ordinary fact of life.  I don’t think anyone ever told me it might end before or without something like Armageddon.  But here we are, and by no war.”

“I’m glad someone noticed,” I said, laughing.

“So, Dad, what can I do?” Quincy asked, not laughing.

“Alright, my son,” I said.  “I’ll make a speech.

 

“First, Ben is going to be governor of California, and you are going to be governor of Florida, and the two of you will earn some stature there, a piece of cake.  Next, after that clingon serves two terms as president of the united front of hypocrisy in this nation, you’ll succeed him.  We’ll steal the election, if we have to.”

“I hope we don’t have to,” said Quincy.  “But it would be better than waking up in the morning to find that the president of the United States of America thinks he invented the Internet.  Plainly that guy doesn’t know what the World Wide Web is.  Next he’ll grow a beard to look like Lincoln.  Or maybe sing Barbra Streisand songs.”

“So you’re already working, paying attention and looking ahead.”

“It beats driving around drunk,” he said, scrunching into the chair.

He laughed about the Gore guy, but I didn’t.  My oil experience told me that Earth needed to find other energy sources, and that one was goring corn from the mouths of babes, and Gore was bragging about that, calling it cleaning air.  No one needed Watergate burglars or flights from outer space to know he was hoping to recruit such as Ben's and Quincy's school chums to do such as promote such while ignoring the undercurrents, the infrastructure of politics, human life on Earth.  I hoped the earth would find a better option, and so I did not laugh but suborned a means.

“That Internet business is important.  It’ll become the foundation of democracy, whether Clingon and his cohorts like it or not.  The one thing they can’t afford is free flow of information, and I expect them to try to stop that flow by trying to stop the company that did invent the World Wide Web for the common people, by making it more accessible and less expensively than anyone else could or would.  That effort may trigger a slump in the stock market, but you can just ride that out.  No one can stop an offering essentially of truth.  So think of Laura again, you for her.

“You remember the Republican National convention in New Orleans, where I accepted the nomination for the presidency.  Do you remember what my vice presidential nominee did on the Riverwalk, when I announced his part in the ticket?”

“Yes,” said Quincy.  “He patted you on the back as though you and he were old school-chums, and he took off his jacket.  His shirt was short-sleeved, and you didn’t look at him.  You just grimaced.  I remember.”

“You remember when that wacko shot Ronny,” I continued.  “Did you know that the wacko’s parents were close enough to my vice presidential nominee to have had dinner at his home?”

“No,” offered Quincy.  “I didn’t know that, but I told you I’m afraid, and I know you don’t tell me everything, but I know you had nothing to do with it.”

“I knew he was,” I answered.  “So, considering all that, do you have a notion why I picked short-sleeve as my running-mate?”

“His parents controlled the media in Indiana, and he had no other ambitions?”

“And I didn’t need a vice president,” I added.

“And you could keep an eye on him.”

“I could do that, anyway.”

“I see.”

I waited for Quincy to ask the most important question in this, and he did.

“He figured that, if Ronny were dead, you’d be president and required to find a vice president.  Then he’d come and tell you what he’d done, thinking you’d be grateful and banking on your being like Linden and Dicky.  Someone who knows about you and Fits Jr. put him up to it, without telling him why.  Someone figured it out as I did.  Not everyone’s ignorant.  Am I right?”

“Oh what a wicked web we weave,” I answered.

“I’ll be as honest as Ronny,” he offered.

“Be as honest as Jimmy,” I said.

“How do I try?” he asked.

“Do your best to build habitats for humanity,” I answered.  “If you do that, everything else will fall into place.  Don’t be like the people who’ve voted me and Jimmy out of office for fear of their temporary level of pocket change.  That’s the fundament.

“But, as for honesty itself, remember what I said about taxes and reading my lips.  The fact that I don’t have any lips is no excuse for the misrepresentation, but what is an excuse for it is that everyone should have known how silly the promise was, that presidents can slow tax legislation, but never stop it.  At least not in our democracy.

“Still it was an offensive thing to say, like Clingon’s saying he’d smoked pot but hadn’t inhaled.  Anyone who smokes pot knows that was a lie, while many people who don’t smoke pot believed it.  So, Clingon, by that lie, solicited votes from two classes of people who can’t deal with the truth.  The first of those classes is people who are simply stupid.  The second is people who are afraid of the truth they find.

“A handbook to literature I had to read for freshman composition at Yale says that the ability to recognize irony is one of the surest signs of intelligence and sophistication.  Anyone who thought I meant what I said about taxes lacks intelligence and sophistication, and so anyone trying to hold it against me is showing either their foolishness or their hypocrisy, not mine.  Or partisan bigotry, or all of the above.

“But, then, partisanship is nothing but a form of bigotry.  So is feminism and male chauvinism, and so is any religion not ecumenical.  Did you know that the French word for bigotry is sectarisme?  That’s as in the words ‘sect’ and ‘sex’.  But I’m rambling, in Latin.  I’d better get to the point.  And the line forward.

“I’m leaving the presidency because my job in this life is mostly done.  I’m letting Clingon succeed me because he isn’t as overweening as Fits Jr. and so will listen to his advisors well enough not to screw up the world much, and will screw up his own image enough to let you defeat his party next time.  The economy will rebound under Clingon as it did under Ronny, and for one of the two main geopolitical reasons it did under Ronny: relative stability in the Middle East because of Camp David then and Kuwait now.  Of course, the main reason then was the power of women, and the main reason now is the new world order that ending the Cold War has created.

“As for screwing up the world, the worst thing I expect Clingon might do is to screw up the operation I’ve initiated in the CIA to get Saddam Hussein out of Iraq without more war.  You know I had to let him slide for a while, because the alternative was to delay winning the Cold War until long after I’m dead.  Soviet hardliners would have used our invading Iraq as an excuse to take a Tiananmen Square approach against the Baltic states.  Then, besides what that would do to the Baltic people, it would end Mikhail’s influence.  Then no more horseshoes with him here.

“But he won’t play with Clingon anyway.  Here’s how I expect things:

“Charlie’s Mujahedin will win in Afghanistan, with the Russian realization of the futility of imperialism.  Not even the United Nations or that vodka-swilling Yeltsin who’s fallen into the void Mikhail had to leave for democracy will support invading Iraq, since Iraq isn’t invading anyone outside its land-space now.  And you’ll have to do some exaggerating to get the support of our forgetful compatriots.

“Reminding them of Saddam Hussein’s record and pointing out to them his atrocities won’t be enough to convince them that you should spend their money to oust him.  He’s never posed an imminent threat to their lives, and now he’s hardly a threat to their gasoline prices, and the majority of United States citizens don’t care about discomfort not theirs.  If they did, slavery wouldn’t have existed in this nation, and the movement your aunt Theresa launched mid-century wouldn’t have been necessary, and affirmative action wouldn’t be necessary now.

“So you may have to bamboozle your compatriots into thinking Saddam Hussein and the Taliban pose an imminent threat to them.  Then, if you’re caught exaggerating, and your voters reject the fundamentals after you point them out, you’ll lose reelection.  You’ll be a one-term president, like me and Jimmy and John Quincy Adams.  But still you’ll have to do it to be right, compassionate, democratic.

“Few citizens care about any citizen not them.  Your Aunt Theresa’s movement depended on dogs and fire hoses loosed against praying children in the face of Fits Jr.  Your reelection may depend on people buried with their hands tied behind their backs in the face of the me-generation Clingon will foster here.

“Yes, I know, I’m recommending subterfuge, and I’m ashamed of it.  But what else can you do in the face of a nation of ignorant lazy liars?”

“Chess,” said Quincy.  “In chess you have to plan so far ahead.”

“Not so far,” I replied.  “And never with so much at stake for all.”

“Too bad,” said Quincy.  “Too bad some think their life is less than that.”

“Yes, and I have one last thing to say.  Remember that a happy soldier is a bitching soldier.  That is, the First Amendment is the main thing making the citizens of the United States the happiest citizens of this world.  I’m sorry the temporary-pocketbook people replaced Mikhail with that vodka-slurping Yeltsin, but I’m glad Shevardnadze is president of Georgia.  He was a great help to us, and is a genuine gentleman, and Georgia is his home.  But I’m rambling again, reminiscing.  And so I think it time for me to go.

“It’s time for me to go and spend more time with Beatrice, and I hope you see that the way to protect Laura’s life is the same as the way to protect yours and all of ours.  Remember that Jimmy builds habitats for humanity, and no one has tried to kill him.”

“Alright, Dad,” said Quincy, nodding.  “But what about Clingon’s wife?” 

“What about her?” I asked.  “What’s her maiden name?  Rhododendron?  Rockefeller?  Rothschild?  Rubble?  Rocky?  Rock?  Rah?”

“Is that free association?” asked Quincy, “Reality check, please, Pop!”

“It’s rude to answer a question with a question, too,” I answered.  “Did you know that rhododendrons are named for Cecil Rhodes, who was no colossus?  I know you know that Clingon was a Rhodes scholar.  Alright, here’s the answer:

“If Heather Rhododendron, who teamed with Rhodes-scholar Clingon to win the presidency eventually for each of them, eventually owns up and dumps Clingon after his philandering gets him impeached, I’ll support her to preside.  If she keeps pretending but does well in some lesser elected office before running for the presidency, I’ll stay out of the contest and let her wile and demeanor prevail, if those qualities can.  If she presents herself as a soap-opera wronged-woman, I’ll make sure she never again sits down behind this desk.  Certainly she knows what Clingon has done and what he will do.  She’s been married to him for more than a score of years.  She’s lived with him.  She knows him.

“No more lies.  Don’t read my lips.  Hear my voice.  No more lies.

“That’s what I think.  Women want a woman in the presidency, and they need a good strong woman as a role-model for their daughters, not someone weak enough to need to depend on lies and the votes of women silly enough to think soap-operas represent Earth in general.  Such clingonism is what I live to stop.”

“Ben says he likes her,” said Quincy.

“Ben said Fits Jr. really was King Arthur.”

“He’ll do well in California,” said Quincy.

“I’ll have to find him a diplomatic staff.”

 

By that I launched my boys in their careers.  I talked basics to Quincy and superficialities to Ben, and I stirred up dust in the minds of both and left them to settle their dust in their own ways.  If they asked advice beyond my rambling, I usually told them to ask their mother.  No one could settle dust as well as she.  I took a vacation.

Jimmy’s presidency had been just in time for Theresa, for her mother and Raymond.  Her mother and Raymond, maybe feeling the world was in good hands with Jimmy, died of cancer during his presidency.  Soon after them, her brother died of it also, leaving Theresa quite alone in the huge motor-city.  But not very alone for long.

She began quietly spawning a new generation of friends, another family of her choosing.  She formed an institute in her name and the name of her quiet husband, to raise the children they had never had, to understand the things that they had built.  The institute showed children their own worth and inspired them to respond to their worthiness worthily, with knowledge of their race’s past and faith and understanding of its future.  Her focus for that Michigan congressman soon transferred to that new spawning of her own.

And Early in that new spawning of hers she asked a new firebrand friend to help her in the infirmity of her aging on Earth.   Elaine worked with her in a sewing-shop, after she moved to Detroit and before she received the recognition she'd deserved, and now Elaine was and helping her extend that recognition.  And she helped Theresa rise far above pine level, literally and physically to heights above the river strait.

She did it for herself, for Theresa’s self, for our self.

For the children.


 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter 20

From Here to Eternity

 

Theresa’s only physical wounds from her battle this trip came from a desperate product of the cause of our trip, from a young African American who snuck into her house to steal money and then beat her for all he could get when she demurred.  Of course, her compassion spoke up for him, but nevertheless Elaine helped her move from that busy little house to a quiet grand apartment on the 25th floor of a building overlooking the river between the still hardly United States and Canada.

And that new aerie for her was appropriate not only from its being so high above the white pines of Michigan and the houses of Albion.  Since Canada had been a promised land for many before the emancipation and for others during the Vietnam question, the Detroit River has seemed much like the Jordan.  Theresa enjoyed the peace, while she awaited the times of her last few actions this trip.  And her hair was growing white like an American eagle’s.  She enjoyed her high aerie, pointing toward our home.  She sang with her little Singer she’d kept for sewing.  She waited for the gate.

And, in helping Theresa win the fame she had earned, Elaine helped her toward her final grand event, a little something beyond the fame, the legacy.  Nearly at the end of the millennium which had largely defined itself by the century her life on Earth this trip had nearly spanned, the Congress of the United States of America awarded Theresa its Medal of Freedom.  Then she made her most toppling statement against bigotry, against the hypocrisy that fed it.  And she made that statement utterly silently, for the future.  Parabolic, for ears that don’t now hear, or are not born.

Clingon and Cauchon.  Comparing those names was compelling.  Cauchon, calling himself a Christian, had burned Theresa at the stake a half-millennium before this trip.  Now, Clingon, called by some who bought his baloney the first black president, placed her on a pedestal.  Both he and Cauchon used her to support their hypocrisy.  Both will be remembered for it.  That’s their legacy.

Theresa, giving Clingon a copy of a book of her legacy, an autobiography she had written for the children of her institute and beyond, inscribed it for Clingon’s mother who had died the year before.  When she presented it to him with words of blessing for his mother, he wept and thanked her.  But he did not weep for shame, and he did not thank her enough.  His best thanks were accidental.

When he used his position as the last president of the United States of that millennium to address those states to claim how he saw the state of their union then, while his congress was debating impeaching him from that presidency for ruining the career of a young female intern in his care, rather than presiding over the fly of his own trousers and just saying no to that young woman’s offer of adultery, he sat Theresa beside his wife in the gallery of the United States congress for all to see, showing his hypocrisy, worldwide.

His party had been the party of segregation before emancipation, and had preached some part in integration after, so African Americans could vote for it.  His party later absorbed some sincerity from people its hypocrisy attracted, but Clingon fostered the hypocrisy, made it his own and festered in it.  That day with Theresa, he showed no people’s state of union, but his separate rot.

So, the legacy of the last person elected in the last passed millennium to preside over the United States of America will be the opposite of Oliver’s, the opposite of the legacy of Moses.  Like Joshua’s legacy, that irresponsible president’s legacy shall instigate an ending, not a beginning.  Theresa’s small and comely fingers left that legacy.  Her timing once again made sure of that.  And silently.

But she had one small thing still left to do.  Finally, she and Nelson, America and Africa, hugged for all the world to see, at the international airport of a city founded by French and named for its waterway strait like a gate, a city now full of people of all colors, freely for all time.  In Motown, Theresa caught the political revolution up with the industrial revolution, singing like her little Singer in her eagle aerie.

“Theresa,” chanted Nelson, at home anywhere out of the straits of prisons, and maybe in them also in the breadth and depth of his soul.  “Theresa!”

For all of Earth to hear and see, and Heaven.

 

So it was time for us to go.  But Lev wasn’t ready to let us.  Back in New Orleans, he had to tell me one more story, to try to get me to stay.  He knew how I felt about bigotry and the further alienation by which hypocrisy feeds it.  So he told me a story of hypocrisy and alienation, in the cradle of liberty.

This book, as I suggested at its beginning, is a tale of two cities.  But I suggested that the two cities are New Orleans and Detroit.  The French founded both, and both are now capitals of African American music and African American people otherwise as well, although they are separated nearly as far as north and south could separate two cities in the United States of America before the manifest destiny spread to Hawaii and Alaska.

But, whatever the symbolism, the manifest destiny of America is more often said to hinge from east to west, and so I’ve also mentioned martyrs in the cradle of liberty and the city of angels.  Lev’s hopeful going-away-gift was a story set in the so-called cradle of liberty while manifesting itself across the continent, to many cities besides those four.

After his study of psychology, Lev decided to look especially into how mental-health professionals treat the down-and-maybe-out, the citizens so derelict that they don’t have a home, the most alienated of Earth’s society.  He knew that that would interest me, because I am so far from home so much.  And so he looked around his Earth at that.

He found in Boston, that cradle of American liberty, the home of Slavey’s mosque and Oliver’s alma mater, a homeless shelter named for the love of Saint Clare.  It was a world-model homeless-shelter, a thirteen-story building a half-block from Boston Common in one direction and a half-block from Boston’s Chinatown in another.

Central to that short block, the edifice was of about the era of the Empire State building, and similarly of gray concrete but with fancy details.  Big glass balls in black bronze fixtures stood on an external otherwise uninhabited balcony a story above the entrance, and they were lit at night.  Lev knew not how they were electrified, by whom or by what power.

Nor did he know who changed the little candle-bulbs in the chandelier in the lobby.  Like the globes above the entranceway outside, the first thing that caught his attention inside was that brass chandelier.  By now, he’d learned to keep his gaze uplifted, most of his time on Earth.  But he still looked down from time to time to keep from stumbling.  He focused on his path to help the monkeys in the trees, ye and me.

So, looking down, the next thing that caught his attention in that homeless-shelter named for Sainte Claire was that nearly every person in the lobby was black, both the employees and the customers, called guests there.  Unable otherwise to be sure which were which, he addressed a man with a metal-detector wand, to acquire direction.

“Can I get something to eat?” Lev asked.

“Sure,” said the man, looking at the new dark-blue-pinstriped Brooks Brothers suit and black leather Bostonian shoes Lev had materialized for the occasion.  “But, next time, you’ll have to go through the metal-detector.”

He pointed to a big box through which guests were walking.  Some of them had baggage they left in a pile on the street-side of the narrow big-box gate.  Others’ clothing suggested that they had nothing not on their backs.  Some had things in their pockets that set off the alarm.  One had guitar strings, but no guitar.

“I’m letting you through now this time,” said the man, after wanding Lev, “because we don’t have much of a line today.  But, next time, you’ll have to wait out front like everybody else.  You didn’t get that suit here, did you?”

Lev noticed that the man wore gold chains, like he'd seen on some in less savory circumstances.  So he wondered about how people were hired to work there, what human resources management thought might be resourceful, and for what.

“No,” said Lev, and he followed the wave of the man’s wand past a window where people were gathered talking to a smiling middle-aged blonde woman who was handing them envelopes and other packages, always with kind word.

“What’s that?” asked Lev of a woman who had turned away with an envelope.

“Mail,” said the woman.  “You know, social security checks, whatever.”

“Do you have to live here to get your mail?” asked Lev.

“You think I live here?” asked the woman.

Lev shrugged and smiled.  He walked on into the dining-room and joined the queue for food.  Some of the others in the line talked with one another, but most stood silent and showed no attention to anything.  Some young men and women, wearing aprons and rubber gloves, wiped tables and mopped other messes and carried trays from a cart near the exit to the kitchen behind the cafeteria counter.  Some of the people behind the counter seemed to Lev perhaps as old as he.  Lev noticed that the old people smiled more than the young ones.  But all of them were very nice to all.

It was lunchtime, and the lunch was chicken a la king on mashed potatoes, with canned peaches for desert and a choice of milk or some fruit-flavored drink.  Some of the guests asked for more than the servers served, and the servers smiled and said they were sorry they couldn’t comply.  And they were, désolés.

“We have to be sure we have enough for everyone,” said, to a guest, an elderly lady with big blue eyes and a bigger smile.

“You’ve got plenty,” said the guest.  “You all just make money off of us.”

The little old lady passed her smile to the next person in line, who was Lev.

“Thanks,” offered Lev, with his head and eyes lowered.

“You’re welcome,” she accepted, looking straight at him.

An exception to the serving limitation was bread.  The servers permitted the guests to help themselves to that, and some of them stuffed slices into their pockets.  They also helped themselves to the drinks, but not to the cups.  They had to come again to get more milk of that human kindness.   And few of them did.

After lunch and a little conversation with the people at his table, Lev took his tray and cup to the cart.  The cart was beside a door to the street, but Lev left through the doorway back to the lobby, and he approached again the man with the metal-detector wand.  The man gave him a chin-up look of inquiry.

“Thanks,” said Lev.  “Nice lunch.  I wanted to see how people feel here.  Where can I go if I want to make a donation?”

“Fifth floor,” said the man, smiling and pointing to the elevators.

On that fifth floor, Lev found a receptionist behind an open window.

“Can I help you?” she asked.

“You’re Russian?” he asked.

“Georgian,” she said.  “Are you Russian?”

“Yes,” he said.  “I’m Lev.”

“Ludmila,” she said, taking the hand he offered through the widely open window.  “But I am called Millie.”

“What are you doing here, Millie?” asked Lev.

“Working,” answered Ludmila, grinning with all of her blonde Georgian face.  “I came here with my husband.  He is a computer programmer.”

“He works here too?” asked Lev.

“No, in Cambridge,” said Millie.

“Well, Millie,” said Lev, “it’s very nice to meet you.  Whom can I see about maybe making a donation?  I had a very nice lunch downstairs.”

“I’ll get someone,” answered Ludmila.  “Would you like some grapes?”

She raised from beside her telephone a paper plate piled with purple grapes.

“Maybe one or two,” said Lev, taking a small sprig from the plate.

Ludmila pushed a button on her many-buttoned telephone.

“A gentleman would like to make a donation,” she said.

“She’ll be here in a moment,” said Millie.  “Would you like to sit down?”

She gestured toward two chairs beside a small table outside her window.

“Would you like some more grapes?” she asked.

“No,” said Lev, sitting.  “You’re very kind.  Thank you.”

An African violet shriveled on the little table.  After about a quarter of an hour, a very thin woman emerged from a hallway beside Ludmila’s little office.  She looked at Millie with a scowl and turned to Lev with a smile and offered her hand.

“I’m Bette Kroll,” she said.  “I’m our director of development.  What can I do for you?”

“Lev Tolstoi,” said Lev.  “I’m thinking I might be able to do something for you.  Is Kroll Polish?”

“Yes,” said the director of development.  “But Bette isn’t.  And it’s worse than that.  My real name is Betty Sue.”

“Such a nice American name,” said Lev, all this in the process of taking her hand and rising from his chair and wondering what next.

“Would you like to come to my office?” asked Betty Sue.

“Your wish, my dear,” said Lev, “is my command.”

“Oh, you’re a charmer,” said Betty Sue, as she receded down the hallway as Lev followed, after exchanging smiles again with Ludmila, who was chewing a grape.

On the way, Lev glanced through the doors of other offices off the hallway.  In the first was a thin white man behind a desk, talking with a young black man seated near the door, which was closed but had a window.  In the second was a white woman, sorting envelopes with an e-mail program open on her computer-screen, and a spider-plant shriveling on her windowsill.  In the third was a white man punching computer keys, with sunlight streaming between open blinds of a window over a Christmas cactus, and a desk with little paper on it but obviously organized for work, and a print of Eichenberg’s Christ of the Breadlines, hanging on the wall beside the desk.  In the fourth was another white man but with the blinds of his window closed and paper scattered everywhere, and obviously not organized for work.  In the fifth was a white woman eating a bagel, while a pile of other pastries sat atop a pile of papers like a haystack all over her desk, and a poster of Jack Kerouac with a cigarette or a joint, on the wall beside her desk.  In the last, an elderly white man closed the door to that office as Lev and Betty Sue passed, shuffling along the carpet, through that hall.   

Betty Sue’s office's door faced the hallway, and pigeons perched on the sill outside its only window.  Lev stepped to the window to give Betty Sue time to sit before he did.  A nest was there, with several baby pigeons in it.

“You even help to find some pigeons home?” asked Lev.

“We do the best we can,” said Betty Sue, settling into the chair at her desk, and waiving Lev into a little chair near the window.  “How can I help you?”

“Well,” said Lev.  “I’d like to dispose of a million dollars by my conscience.”

Betty Sue’s right hand fluttered on some paper on her desk.  Then, with the same hand, leaving the other lying in her lap, she pushed a button marked “CONF” on her telephone.  Lev didn’t then know what CONF meant, but he later learned that it meant conference, and that one pushed that button to transfer calls to voicemail without ringing.

“You’ve come to the right place,” she said, “Mr. Tolstoi.”

“Lev, if you please,” said Lev.  “Thank you for lunch.”

“You had lunch downstairs?” asked Betty Sue.

“Yes,” answered Lev.  “Quite pleasant.”

“Well, we do more than that,” said Betty Sue.  “We provide clothing and medical treatment and mental-health and substance-abuse counseling.  Our seventh floor is a program for teaching life-skills, such as how to find a job and to make it a career, how to write a résumé and dress for success.  We give them the clothes, and we teach them how to use computers, and we let them use ours.

“We have a day-center, where our guests can be out of the weather all day, and we use it for triage.  We don’t operate an emergency night-shelter, but the City of Boston operates one with a hundred beds on our fourth floor, and our top three floors are 39 single-occupancy rooms with shared dining and kitchen and bath facilities and a nice little living-room with a television, for people who have been clean and sober for more than six months.  We’re a whole-health operation, in the true spirit of Santa Clara.  But we’re ecumenical and leave not a soul behind.”

She had closed her door, and now someone knocked on it.

“Yes?” said Betty Sue, as though the word had two long syllables.

            The door opened, and a blonde head leaned in and smiled.

“Sorry, Betty Sue,” said the head.  “I didn’t know you were with someone.”

Betty Sue smiled.  The head receded.  The door closed.

“How do you get your funding?” asked Lev, looking at the door.

“Private donations from people like you,” said Betty Sue.

“You don’t get government funding?” asked Lev.

“Surely,” said Betty Sue.  “But people like you have to match it.”

“Do you develop the funding or the services?” asked Lev.

“I, myself,” said Betty Sue, “develop the funding, but we all work together.  We’re all a team here, one big happy family.  Here, let me show you something.”

She dug through the mass of paper on her desk and found a photograph and showed it to Lev.  It was a picture of two persons’ heads superimposed atop two evening-gowns, one of the heads being of the elderly man who had closed his door on their passing down the hall, the other Betty Sue's.

“That’s our executive director,” said Betty Sue, pointing to the former head.

Betty Sue grinned, looking at the photograph she held, but Lev didn’t.

“Whose dresses are they,” asked Lev scowling, finding nothing else to say.

“Princess Diana’s,” said Betty Sue.  “Isn’t that wonderful?  She donated them to us before she died, and we auctioned them off for a lot of money.  Mo Vaughn, the Red Sox slugger, donates money to us too, and one season he gave us a thousand dollars for each of his homeruns.  We called that homers for the homeless.  There’s the check.”

She pointed to a Styrofoam check about five feet wide leaning against a wall.

“He brought his parents to visit us once, and his father wept,” she said.  “Now, he’s moved to the city of angels, but we’re hoping he’ll continue his support.”

Lev wasn’t much into baseball, having been through too many wars to care much about sports, and he’d lost all the fondness he’d had for royalty, by the same pathway.  So he lapsed into silence, and Betty Sue had to struggle to bring him back out.

“Would you like to meet our executive director?” she asked.

“I’ll see if he’s in,” she said, without waiting for answer.

She rose from her chair and opened her door and knocked on the one the elderly man had closed.  After a few seconds, a voice seeped singing through the door.

“Who is it?”

“Ari, do you have a minute?” asked Betty Sue, opening the door and leaning in, as the blonde head had through hers.  “I have someone I’d like you to meet.”

            “Oh, sure,” sugarly said Ari.  “Come on in.”

            Lev arose and followed Betty Sue into that other office.

            “This is Lev Tolsoi,” said Betty Sue to Ari.

            “Ari Hamm, our executive director,” said Betty Sue to Lev.

            “Nice to meet you,” said Ari, shaking hands with Lev and grinning a wide-eyed grin.  “Did you write War and Peace?”

            “A lot of people ask me that,” said Lev, again not grinning.

            “Lev is thinking of donating some money,” said Betty Sue.

            “Good,” said Ari.  “Sit down.  Do you have any questions I can answer?”

            Ari’s desk faced the wall at the end of the office furthest from the door, but he had a round pine table with wooden and canvas director-chairs between it and the door.  He gestured to the table, and they all sat down.  Ari folded his hands on the table.

            “I think Betty Sue has answered all my questions,” said Lev.

            “Betty Sue?” asked Ari, looking first at Lev and then at Betty Sue, turning the beginning of a smile into a frown.  “Who’s Betty Sue?”

            Betty Sue pointed at her small roe chest.

            “Oh, Bette!” said Ira.  “I didn’t know your name was Betty Sue.”
            “I don’t use it much,” said Bette to Ari.

            “Well,” said Ari.  “Good.  I can’t think of a pun.  I’ll have to work on it.”

            “Well, alright,” said Lev.  “Oh, I do have one question I thought of downstairs but forgot to ask Bette.  Most of the guests I saw downstairs were African Americans.  How do you deal with that?  How about your employees?”

            “Forty percent of our employees are minorities,” said Betty Sue.

            “Yes,” said Ari, grinning again.  “It’s all pretty black and white.”

            “You’re so funny, Ari,” said Betty Sue, and Ari grinned again.

            “Well,” said Ari.  “If you have any other questions for me, just call Betty Sue.”

            Lev looked at Ari to see if he was grinning at that, but he wasn’t.  He was frowning at his hands, which unfolded as he rose from his chair.  Betty rose as well, and Lev followed suit in wonder, wonder at how folks could be so crude.  Nevertheless, he shook hands again with Ari, and bade farewell to Bette.

            “Ari’s wonderful,” said Bette.  “He loves puns, and he sings at all our staff functions.  Here’s a brochure that tells about our programs in more detail. So how do you like our little agency?  Do we fit your conscience?

            “I’ll have to let you know,” Lev said to her outside the office doors.  “I have to talk to my accountants.  Taxes are important, too.”

            “Of course,” said Betty Sue.  “Can I show you out?”

            “I’ll be alright,” said Lev and turned away.

            The pastry person was not at her desk when he passed this time, but some crumbs remained atop the paper pile.  The computer keypuncher was outside his office, closing the door.  He smiled and nodded as Lev passed.

            Lev smiled and nodded to Ludmila, and received a smile and wave in return.  Lev looked at the elevator buttons and turned back to Millie, just as the keypuncher spoke to her, bidding her goodnight.

            “You are leaving for today?” asked Millie.

            “Yeah,” said the keypuncher.  “Dost vi dania.”

            “Dost vi dania,” said Ludmila, smiling again.

            “Is there a stairway?” asked Lev.

            “Right here,” said the keypuncher.

 

            He opened a door, and Lev followed him through it and down the stairs.  The keypuncher began taking the steps a half-dozen at once, swinging himself between them by his hands on the banisters.  But Lev stopped him with a question.

            “In a hurry to get out of here?”

            “Not at all,” said the keypuncher.  “I love this place.  But my job’s too easy.  I ran out of things to do.  So I asked my boss to let me take some vacation time for the rest of the afternoon.  What the hell.  It’s Friday.”

            “What’s your job?” asked Lev, as they descended the stairs, now both in ordinary fashion, the keypuncher clearly in no hurry.

            “My official title is Finance Administrator,” said the keypuncher.  “But I do a lot of other stuff too, and I still run out of work.”

            “I’m thinking of making a donation?” offered Lev.

            “It’s a wonderful place,” replied the finance-administrator.

            “Any qualifications to that?” Lev asked him.

            “Some,” answered the finance-administrator.  “How much time you got?”

            “All the time in the world,” said Lev.  “Do you drink beer?”

            “Since I was two,” said the finance-administrator.  “I practically breath it.”

            By this time they were on the street, and a slight drizzle wet the autumn air.

            “Know a bar near here?” asked Lev.

            “Sure,” said the finance-administrator.

            He turned away from Chinatown and toward the Common, and they walked silent side-by-side until the light on Tremont Street, where Lev broke the silence again.

            “I love that Eichenberg print in your office,” he said.  “It suggests that not all Germans have been French corporals.  But one never knows about hypocrisy.”

            “I know what you mean,” said the banister-swinger.  “I inherited the print from my predecessor.  She also left a button stuck to a bulletin-board in that little office, saying ‘Don’t panic!’  She panicked and left in about a year, and I’ve been here almost seven.  I kept the button too, as a memento mori.  As I said, I love this place.”

            “I’m the ghost of Lev Tolstoi,” said Lev.

            “Good,” said the finance-administrator.  “I knew, if I hung around l’amore di Santa Clara long enough, I’d run into someone like you.”

            “Like me?” asked Lev.

            “Someone bigger than the other people I know,” answered the finance-administrator.  “I read War and Peace in Russian once.  That book’s big enough by itself.  It took me four months.  I wore out a dictionary.”

            “Most of my kids were born while I was writing it,” said Lev.

            “I didn’t notice much change of tone as I read it,” said the finance-administrator.

            “I’m a slow learner,” said Lev.  “That’s why I’m a ghost.”

            “You’re hanging around to clean yourself up?”  asked the finance-administrator.

            “I’m hanging around to try to let that happen,” answered Lev, matter-of-factly.

            “Yeah, well I was Billy the Kid, and I have kids, too.”

            “I’m pleased to meet you,” offered Lev.
 

 

 

Chapter 21

1984

 

            “I see your point,” said the finance-administrator, as they approached the little cemetery at that corner of the Common.  “The bar’s there, across the street.  We can grab some beers from the bar and go downstairs to the vault.  The place used to be some kind of bank or jewelry-store or something.  Not many people go down there.  But we can.”

            The finance-administrator bought the first round as Lev waited by the steps down to the vault.  Down there was a room with tables and banquettes and a small unattended bar outside a vault with a steel door that might well have done for a bank in Lev’s and Billy’s earlier time, or for Celtic crown-jewels or for a cask of Amontillado.  They had the room to themselves and sat at the table most equidistant from the rest of the room.

            “So, finance-administrator,” said Lev.  “What are the qualifications?  What occurrences make Sainte Claire’s charity questionable?  What’s the trouble?”

            “It’s all quite basic,” said the finance-administrator.  “Racial discrimination and fiscal corruption, and management too incompetent to hide the facts of that.”

            “You sound like a typical disgruntled employee,” said Lev.  “Except that you’re white, which makes the first thing you mentioned not your business.”

            “I’m atypical in that I try to work for the guests and the donors and the taxpayers.  I mean I’m typical in that the employment isn’t what disgruntles me.”

            “Okay,” said Lev.  “What does?  What, exactly?”

            Lev and Billy were tiptoeing around each other like heartbreaking new friends, as Jack Kerouac suggested all of us might well wish to do, while we stand or fall on less artificial formalities, forms that keep us out of others’ self.           

            “Exactly what it does,” said the finance-administrator, “is that none of this will ever make the evening news, or wind its way into a best-selling novel.  But I’ll tell you anyway, because I’m still trying to figure out who I am. So:

            “To me, it started with how a white Republican administrative assistant behaved toward a black Jamaican receptionist.  I love Ludmila, as I love Hoagy Carmichael and Ray Charles, and so I know that basic fairness and simple decency wouldn’t have opened the position she’s filled.  But that proved to be the proverbial tip of the iceberg.  As time went by, I noticed other things.  I saw more against les autres.

            “We have a transitional housing program on our top five floors.  HUD, the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development, pays for most of it.  And it started with a loan of about $1.5 million we don’t have to repay if we keep the program running.  Each year, over thirty years, the contract lets us write off a thirtieth of the loan.  So, unless we screw up horribly, it’s a grant, not a loan.

            “You can guess where I’m going with this.  Boston is becoming famous for its big dig, maybe the biggest civil-construction cost-overrun in history, a project to dig tunnels and build bridges to improve traffic-flow in this city.   That project is progressing more slowly than the need for improvement, while people are being caught wheel-barrowing cash out the Massachusetts capitol into their private bank-accounts.

            “Our HUD project isn’t as big as the big dig, and the racism at L’Amore di Santa Clara may not be as horrible as the pedophilia in what Roman-Catholics call their church.  But Claire and her Francesco also in the name of the Roman Catholic church took vows of poverty, and bigotry is the main scourge of humanity.  Anyway, at one point, I discovered plain evidence of fiscal corruption, in my duties as finance-administrator, undeniable proof.  And I showed it to my boss.

            “It was plain and simple.  It wasn’t enough to buy a new home, but it was plenty enough to furnish a room in a house.  And, as I said, it was undeniable, plain facts of who was doing it and with whom, how and where and when.

            “What do you think he said?” asked the kid.

            “'Forget about it,' maybe?” offered the count.

            “Close,” continued the financed-administrator.  “'I don’t see anything wrong with someone getting a dining-room-set out of a deal like that.'  That’s what he said.”

            “Who’s your boss?” asked Lev.  “Pun-man Ari?”

            “No,” said the finance-administrator.  “Ari has no notion what I do, except that I give him more cash than he needs for taxi fare and don’t wheedle him for receipts.  So that’s another form of petty embezzlement.  Did he take you to lunch?”

            “No,” said Lev.  “I ate with the guests.”

            “Good man!” said the finance-administrator.  “I’m proud of you.  I used to eat in our staff dining room, until I got sick of the phonies that call themselves our executive staff.  We’re supposed to pay a dollar for meals of the guests’ food, but they don’t.  Then they talk about how wonderful they are to the rest of us.  We pay the dollar and have to listen to them pretend while we eat.  It’s crazy.

            “Anyway, you’re lucky Ari didn’t take you to lunch.  He carries no more cash than he thinks he needs to squeak through a day, and he folds that ten-or-twenty-dollar bill into a rectangle about one inch the long way and hides it deep in his wallet, where he can hardly find it.  So, if he takes you to lunch, you throw your credit-card on the table in exasperation, before he finds it and unfolds it.

            “He has a L’Amore di Santa Clara corporate credit-card, but he’s afraid to go on record for anything he does.  That’s why he closes the door of his office whenever he hears anyone talking anywhere near it, and he hardly speaks a sentence in any other office either, before he closes that door, too.  And he writes his speeches and reads them, even five-minute speeches, even jokes.”

            “What do you think he’s afraid of?” asked Lev.

            “Himself, I guess,” said the finance-administrator.  “He’s not afraid of being greedy, just of being caught.  I heard him begging the chairman of the board to give him a raise.  I guess he was afraid to close the door on the chairman.

            “'I deserve more,' he said, 'after all I’ve given to l’amore di Santa Clara.'

            “It seems to me that giving to l’amore is a gift to oneself.”

            “Have you ever told Betty Sue that?” asked Lev.

            “I’m sure I have from time to time,” answered the finance-administrator.  “I’ve worked with all those people more than five years.  But I’m sure I haven’t said it to Ari, because Ari hardly ever talks with me, except to ask for taxi fare or other reimbursement, from petty cash, unaccountably.”

            “So, then, who is your boss, finance-administrator?” asked Lev, frowning.

            “The director of finance and administration,” said the finance-administrator.

            “What’s the difference,” asked Lev, frowning now at the finance-administrator’s grin, “between a finance-administrator and a director of finance and administration.  Do you lack direction they can favor or accept?”

            “Pretty much so,” said the finance-administrator.  “I do the billing and pay the bills and put the money in the bank and reconcile the bank accounts and allocate the payroll to our cost-centers to meet the demands of contract and grant stipulations, and I put the numbers from all of that into the books.  Then I give my boss reports telling him what those numbers are, and he redirects them into formats that please the contractors and donors.  In other words, his job is sales.  Mine’s accounting.

            “He also makes most major purchases, although I write the checks for them.  That gives him plenty of room for dining-room-set deals, and he often pays more than he must for services like our telephone system and our computer-network administration.  Those are contracts he negotiates, and we could do in-house a lot of the work we outsource, better and less expensively.  But the biggest possibility for kickbacks comes from construction projects, like the transitional housing program and our elevator and HVAC renovation.  The deputy director does most of that negotiation.

            “Then there are consultants.  We’re doing what we call a capital campaign.  It’s a fundraising operation whose sole purpose is raising money for construction projects, and we pay consultants huge amounts of money ostensibly to help us with that, and we hired an in-house director for it.  We pay the in-house director less than we do the consultants, and the deputy director keeps a tight lid on her, and she’s pretty sloppy anyway, but she’s African American.  She’s our only African American manager and our only manager not permitted to approve her department’s expenses.  Tokenism?

            “And some of the construction projects are crazy to start with.  When we started the capital campaign, Ari and the deputy director asked in a general staff meeting that all the staff submit recommendations for construction projects, and they implemented none of the suggestions.  And a project that did make the campaign is to move the kitchen to the basement, and to extend the freight elevator to the basement to move the food from there to the serving line.  That means literally burying the volunteers and literally risking the lives of the guests.  I’m talking about human resources and sanitation.

            “Then there’s the fact that, despite the hundreds of thousands of dollars we’ve spent on elevator renovation, we can’t be sure our elevators are going to work on any given day, or in any given mealtime.  In other words, in the name of capital improvement, we’re planning to demoralize our volunteers, risk the lives of our guests by increasing the time between preparing food and serving it, and risk not being able to feed the guests at all some days.  So, other than the possibility of kickbacks from more construction, I can’t think of a motive for that project.  And I’m trained in such matters.”

            “Sounds to me,” said Lev, “that you’re a screen, a naïve person set to draw attention.  Have you said anything about this to the deputy director?”

            “Sure,” said the finance-administrator.  “She offers two answers.  One is that we’ll talk about it, but no later talk ever comes about.  The other, when I argue a little, is basically that she’s a manager, and I’m not.  That’s her argument against the fact that I’m trained and experienced in such matters, while she isn’t.  In other words, she thinks that being the boss legitimizes irresponsible authority.  Yet she has a master’s degree in social work.  And that’s the part that drives me craziest.

“The transitional housing program has coin-operated laundry machines for the tenants to use, and my accounting showed that no one was reporting the collection of most of the coins during the tenure of the first person we hired to direct that program.  First, in that, I wondered why we were charging the clients to use the machines, and second I wondered where the quarters were going.

“But, most, I wondered why we hired that director.  He was supposed to be a social worker, there to help people get over their addictions and become productive citizens.  But he had tattoos and earrings, and he died his hair orange like a punk rocker, and he moonlighted as a bouncer in a bar.  And we had to garnish his pay for support for his children.  What kind of social worker would hire him?

            “But the deputy director did hire him, and she didn’t fire him for stealing the quarters.  She fired him because he got us sued for not following due process of law in evicting someone from the transitional housing.  Afterward, she said she thought it was horrible that someone would steal quarters from homeless people, but that was while she was eating their food without following our requirement for staff to pay for what of it they eat.  If she did think she was a do-gooder, it must have been with the rationale you attribute to Napoleon, that he thought he deserved perks from making the world a better place, maybe like Pat Garrett.

            “But she and Ari are paid well anyway.  Her salary is higher than that of most general managers of full-service luxury hotels, and she couldn’t touch the responsibilities of their job, either legally or socially, no way.  And Ari, in the first year after he cried to the board about not getting what he had given to l’amore di Santa Clara, took out of there more than three times the deputy director’s compensation for that period.  And, also, I have to wonder what they do with their money, with or without kickbacks.

            “If Ari has any children, they’ve long been on their own, and he and his wife rent their apartment, and he’s been working at L’Amore di Santa Clara fifteen years.  In five years, at a salary about half of the deputy director’s, I got myself out of credit-card debt from a bad marriage and saved enough besides to put 10% down on a condominium in Boston’s outrageous real estate market.  That 10% was about what my debt had been, and I mortgaged for fifteen years rather than thirty and managed to save that amount again in the next year.  But the deputy director takes payroll advances for vacations.

            “I, while I was saving all that money to buy my home, took vacations to Central America and the Middle East, besides to New Orleans for French Quarter Fest and to New York for New Year’s Eve and the Belmont Stakes, still enjoying the wildness of White Oaks, though not the Lincoln County killing.  Once, I started to tell the deputy director about my trips to Central America and the Holy Land.

            “'I go to nice places on vacation,' she said, and she turned and walked away.

            “She also said she found Dr. Zhivago boring, because it was all about someone walking miles in snow, and she was talking about the film, not the book.  I wonder if she’s read any of your books.  Of course she hasn’t!”

            “Maybe she’s jealous of Lara,” suggested Lev.

            “Maybe,” said the finance-administrator.  “She married someone she doesn’t bring to functions of l’amore di Santa Clara, after they were past the age of most marriages.  And she said her father criticized her impracticality, something about installing closet-rods.  That marriage of hers has lasted years, but without children.

            “L’Amore di Santa Clara’s donors paid for a champagne party to celebrate that marriage, here in this vault.  I drank beer on that occasion, as the shelter's clothing distribution supervisor emerged from a cardboard cake, with a rubber mask of President Clingon covering his face.  A lot of people laughed, but I didn’t.

            “I don’t know, but I think maybe that’s the answer.  I think maybe it’s drugs, what they spend their money on.  L’Amore di Santa Clara has no drug-testing policy for employees, and my boss says the reason is that it would be contrary to the culture there, which is supposed to be to free people from addictions.

“Ari buys books on clinical drugs, saying they’re for his continuing education, and we reimburse him for them while we have no one on our staff who can prescribe drugs.  The deputy director wears the same shoes to work several days in a row, and my boss wears the same pair of trousers to work more than a week at a time, and our human resources specialist has a Jack Kerouac poster, on a wall of her office.

“Ari recruited a guy with whom he’d worked in New York, to direct counseling.  That guy made speeches during lunch in the staff dining-room, promoting legalizing drugs.  Once, while his wife was out of town, he asked me to go out and have a few beers with him.  We went to Charles Street, the business street at the bottom of Beacon Hill, where I was renting an apartment then.  After a few beers, we went to my place and ordered a pizza from across the street.  When I returned from picking up the pizza, my apartment reeked of marijuana.  I couldn’t not inhale the smell.

“I don’t know.  But I know they all have serious ego problems.  That director of counseling made no secret of the fact that he’d rather play piano in bars than direct counseling for a homeless shelter.  Add that to Kerry’s contempt for vacationing in troubled lands and Ari’s argument that he wasn’t getting what he deserved, and you have what most often makes people turn to drugs, I think.  They don’t feel the world is good enough for them, and so they try to run.  Ari may be the worst example of that bunch of people.  He seems more than ready to sell his soul.  She smokes tobacco, too.”

“Who?” asked Lev, still somehow paying attention to this tirade.

“Kerry Wordy,” said the finance-administrator, “our deputy director.”

“A nasty habit,” said Lev.  “Almost as bad as the snuff in Russia.”

“Yes, a nasty habit,” agreed the finance-administrator.  “It’s an addiction, and she’s deputy director of an agency that’s supposed to help people get over addictions.  Substance abuse is the most common cause of homelessness, and Kerry not only smokes and drinks but also advertises both.  She talks and laughs in front of the guests about needing a cigarette or a drink.  She’s supposed to be helping people get rid of their addictions.  But she brags about hers, gloats about it.  It’s crazy.

“She also arranged for an open bar at our staff Christmas party.  I drink too, as you can see, but I don’t brag about it or promote it, and I’m not a professional social-worker, although I try to work for society, to make us all social, no blame or shame.  And, in the spirit of Sainte Claire and the needs of the homeless, for the needs of the people most able and ready for social work, I didn’t drink at that Christmas party.”

Lev told me that by then he was peering into the vault as into a river.

“Do you think all homeless shelters are like that?” he asked the kid.

“I don’t know,” replied the finance-administrator.  “But I’ve heard that the Pine Street Inn is, and it’s the biggest homeless shelter in this city.  I heard they had to fire their executive director for checking out porn on the Internet.  And, if you think that’s funny, I’ve got something else weird to tell you.

“In my week in the Holy Land, I met but two Americans.  One was a journalist at the church of the nativity, and the other was wearing a Red Sox T-shirt in a bar in Tel Aviv.  I asked the guy in the bar whether he was from Boston, and he said he’d had my boss’s job for the veterans shelter here.  He said his name was Finkle and that he was then teaching business courses at a Tel Aviv university.

“I couldn’t find him very credible, because he was drunk and bragged about having been drunker and planning to be drunker again, reminding me of Kerry Wordy.  But he told me things that told me he knew some of what he was talking about, and what he mainly talked about was board-of-directors corruption.  And the Boston Globe has reported on that shelter’s fiscal mismanagement.

“But, anyway, I had to think about how important the whole question is.  Homelessness is how the strife in the Holy Land began, and it remains the basic issue as it was the basic issue in the Lincoln County wars and in the depression dustbowl: ‘This Land is Your Land’.  Woody Guthrie!  You know?

“I know the veterans shelter claims to let no boozing in the door.”

 

Lev told me all that paled him, appalled him.  He told me his Russia was never so weird.  He said he just sat there in that cellar and listened as the finance-administrator rambled on, about everyplace from Lincoln County to Vietnam, from Afghanistan to Formosa, from Israel to Birmingham, and back to Boston, to his little work.

“The racism points to that as well,” Lev said the finance-administrator said.  “I think people are racists because they feel worthlessness in themselves, and so they’re desperate to think they’re better than other people.  I’ve never seen racism as rampant as in that institution of people professing to be social-workers, the one named for the love of Saint Clare.  Here’s another example, that points to the cause, if I see the fingers there.  Keeping color from the dawn, you know?

“Two of the tenants in the transitional housing program had several similarities.  Both were physically disabled, one with a heart-disorder and one with a nerve-disorder, and both were receiving disability-compensation from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and indications strongly suggested that both were dealing drugs, to other tenants and guests of l’amore di Santa Clara.

“The requirements for entry into that program are that the client have a job and be clean and sober for more than six months and that they pay 30% of their income as rent and attend therapy-meetings.  One difference between those two tenants was that one was black while the other was white, and another difference was that the black one complied with those requirements much more than did the white one.

“Another difference was that the deputy director called the white tenant a nice guy and put him to work in our kitchen paying him more than his case manager, while the black one became the only tenant evicted since the departure of the tattooed bouncing program-director, for any reason other than nonpayment of rent.

“The written reason was the black tenant’s failing a drug-test, after being tested far more frequently than the white tenant who didn’t pay any rent, even after we paid him for the kitchen help.  The new program-director, the one the deputy director hired to replace the quarter-stealer, has another reason for anything.

“'Nobody ever said life is supposed to be fair,' he says.

“I say life is supposed to be fair,” said the ghost of Billy the Kid.  “And I’ve spoken up accordingly, and I’ll probably be fired from my dedication to l’amore di Santa Clara.  And, if I am fired, I’ll speak more loudly, beyond the people directly responsible, by taking the issue to the court of public opinion I hope I’ve learned is more powerful than gun-slinging.  I don’t see much attention to your pen, but maybe I can speak in smaller words.  More concisely.  More plainly.  You know?

“But I’ve already taken it to my nearest equivalent on the board of directors and received no answer from him.  I received an answer, but from Ari saying I don’t know what I’m talking about and shouldn’t bother the board with operational matters.  My next step will be to submit a formal grievance, according to the policies promised in our employee handbook, and the answer will be another denial.  I’ll be told that the policy is in the process of revision, as it always is.  It’s a moving target.”

“Wait a minute!” said Lev.  “How do you know that?  How can you be so negative?  Don’t they have to comply with whatever’s written?”

The finance-administrator shook his head and laughed and frowned.

“No,” he said.  “They’re revising it.  They’re paying their law-firm thousands of the donors’ dollars to revise it, and they’ll pay their law-firm thousands of more dollars to get rid of me, if they have to.  That’s like the question of why audits don’t catch the financial irregularities I see every day, and the answer to that question is in the nature of auditors and attorneys.  Attorneys use the law to represent their clients despite the law, and auditors don’t get hired if they have a reputation for finding irregularities.  Here’s another example from L’Amore di Santa Clara, of how all that insanity works.

“The executive staff hired a consultant to train all the staff in diversity.  The consultant came to L’Amore di Santa Clara and spent many hours telling the staff how to get along with one another regardless of race, religion, etc.  After all those hours, he made some recommendations, and the executive staff made a show of complying with some but eventually dropped or ignored all of them.  Why did they do that?

“Two reasons.  One is that, if someone tries to sue them for racial discrimination, they can say they went to all that trouble and expense to promote diversity in the workplace.  The other is that they paid that consultant, who was a professor from Boston University, a wage that in a fulltime year would add up to about twice Ari’s compensation for the year after he cried to the board that he was under-compensated.  University professors of social work ordinarily get less than a quarter of that, and I have to suspect that this one kicked much of that back.  It’s a sucking situation all around.

“Then there’s the board member to whom I presented my complaint and shall formally my grievance, because he’s the board’s treasurer while I’m our finance-administrator.  His name is M. Mickey Muller, and I have to wonder already about someone who has a problem with displaying his first name, and I’ve proved already that he isn’t someone who would throw Satan out of Heaven, as the archangel Michael did.  So indications of ego-despair and irresponsibility keep ramping.

“But here’s more.  When I began for l’amore di Santa Clara, the chairman of its board of directors was a Franciscan friar.  Now the chairman is someone I’m told has a lot of stock in Texaco, someone named King Jazzin.  The deputy director’s name is Kerry, and the human resources specialist calls herself Kate.  I’ve grown to think of the three of them as the KKK.  I think you see my point in that.

“Anyway, when the Franciscan friar left our board to accept a position higher on Anthony's ladder, our treasurer wandered the hallways of the fifth floor you visited, to solicit an audience.  Before the audience of us, he proudly presented to the Franciscan friar an expensive golf-putter, and afterward I had to write him a check from general donations, to reimburse him for it!  See what I mean?”

“Sure,” said Lev.  “I see what you mean.  What about ‘us’, the staff in general?”

“The staff in general is great,” said the finance-administrator.  “And L’Amore di Santa Clara provides wonderful and noble services for the homeless, but that’s despite the executive staff.  Most of the staff hates to go to staff meetings, even staff picnics and staff Christmas parties, because they’re sick of the obviously bogus speeches of top management and its toadies.  Most of the staff regards Ari as a retarded buffoon and Kerry as an out-of-control control-freak and Kate Plate as a toady.”

“What about the board of directors?” asked Lev.

“The staff says they're snooty,” answered the kid.

“But, naïve or not, the us take advantage of executive lack of focus to do what we feel or think in ourselves is right.  That’s easy to do, because management principles such as span of control and unity of command don’t exist there.  Kerry tries to supervise everyone, and so she forgets most of what she tells people.”

“Okay,” said Lev.  “But back up a second!  Who’s Kate Plate?”

“She’s what we call a human resources specialist, and she personifies the executive attitude, as her title says she must.  She told me the funniest thing she’s ever heard was a Monty Python skit mimicking the sound of Mary Stuart’s head bouncing down the steps of the tower of London.  One thing many of the employees complain about is her preaching anti-Catholicism in the staff dining-room.  Founded by Franciscans of Boston's St. Anthony's shrine, L’Amore de Santa Clara is now ecumenical, from its Jewish executive director on down.  But much of its staff remains true to the name, and truer to humanity than its legacy.

“Little despots make me sickest,” said Billy.  “They’re the worst of the French corporals.  But let me give you one more example of managerial insanity.  We have another HUD-sponsored program, that’s becoming famous by the salesmanship of its director, who couldn’t administer his way out of a wet paper-bag.  Like many sales-people, he talks a big show and easily forgets his promises, and so his subordinates resent his very existence, and so also act by their own hearts better.

“One thing that director does right is staff his program mostly with graduates of it, but one thing he does wrong is treat them as though they owe him their souls for that.  One example is publishing an article he called ‘The Junky Whore’ about one of his life-skills instructors, who had come there to leave that life.

“Her job for l’amore de Santa Clara is helping people in that program dress for success, and she is one of the most gracious people I’ve ever met, while also intolerant of lack of integrity.  No one asked her permission to publish that article, and she complained.  So they’ll probably also fire her.

“And something else about that beautiful woman is her fragility.  Outside her work and her studies toward a graduate degree now, she is practically a hermit for fear of falling back into her old ways.  If they fire her, she probably shall fall back into those old ways, and you can bet they’ll fire her, anyway.

“To me, that’s horror.  But the craziest thing about that program director, who has adopted with his wife some mentally-challenged children and tries to brow beat them into following his style of reasoning, is that he moonlights managing a skeet range.   Think about that, considering Franciscan founding.

“Francis of Assisi is most famous for loving all creatures, and especially birds.  L’Amore de Santa Clara talks and preaches and actualizes through its little honest people the spirit of that saint.  Meanwhile, the director of one of its largest programs operates a training ground for killing birds as they fly.

“But what can one expect?  The Franciscan board-chairman was wearing a polo-shirt when he accepted the putter, and Franciscans donate millions of dollars to L’Amore de Santa Clara.  That may be good for l’amore di Santa Clara, but it by no means accords with Francis or his rules for his order.

“Francis forbade accepting alms beyond food and the basic brown garb.  When the church offered him ownership of real estate for his order, he refused.  Instead, he paid rent for that shelter, a basket of fish each year, fish his friars caught.  But, then, if Francis loved all creatures, how about the fish?

 

“But I think you may be right, Lev.  I mean about my being a typical disgruntled employee, like a typical disgruntled cow being led to slaughter or a typical fetus being aborted.  Humans call humans beastly when they kill other humans, and they abort their own embryos.  Beasts don’t do such things.

“And humans do it in the name of reason, which they say makes them superior to beasts.  I think humans are inferior to beasts in that they are the only species capable of trying to make lame excuses for doing anything they feel like doing, and I think being a boss takes that to a level one step lower.

“Most of us feel compelled to explain what we do, by stating reasons for our opinions that make us do it.  Bosses seem to me to get to be bosses by hiding their reasoning as much as they can, putting them a step less reasonable than people who say they have a right to their opinion.

“That, I think, is the least rational, because it angers and alienates anyone more reasonable, because it means bosses don’t have an obligation to find reasons for opinions or to learn.  What’s up with that, I’ve had to ask.  How crazy can we get?

“I did some deeds in Vietnam as well, and I’ve learned since then that the U. S. Veterans Administration is a lot like L’Amore di Santa Clara.  I heard a V. A. employee say that her employment wouldn’t be so bad, were it not for the veterans.

“I also found that the Veterans Administration won’t hire criminals it claims to rehabilitate and to assist in employment!  Doesn’t it believe in its own social-work or care about other society?  How’s that for bigotry and hypocrisy?

“But, still, a difference as I said is that the little people working for l'amore di Santa Clara come there knowing and work there knowing full well the importance of whatever they can best do at that basically lovely place.

            “So I posted the question on the World Wide Web, regarding l’amore de Santa Clara.  I posted it on an Internet newsgroup for nonprofit organizations, and the main reply was that I was fouling my own nest.

            “I hope and pray the nest is mine, and so I don’t see how I’m doing the fouling, if the nest is all non-profits.  That reply reminded me of monsters terrorizing children.”

            “Yes,” said Lev.  “I love ballet and honor that Clara is the heroine of The Nutcracker!  How can we raise children, if we can’t be fair and decent with adults?” 

            “Did you notice that this bar’s name is Remington’s?” asked the kid.  “As in mass-producing rifles, and the Marine that killed Fits Jr.?  Deep vault, huh?"

            “Be the monsters real or not,” said Lev, “they shouldn’t be and needn’t ever be.”


 

 

 

 

Chapter 22

The Trial

 

“It all seems crazy to me,” rambled on this reincarnated Billy the Kid.  “But it fits well here in Boston, with the Common having been founded as a sort of skeet-range for practicing killing the natives of this continent, and moving on to Mary Dyer and the big dig.  And it fits well in the Roman church, with the rich pedophile clergy and people kissing the popes ring as though it were a golden calf, with poor people’s ambivalence wishing their children to be both good and rich, and so to join the clergy to steal in the name of God.  I have a tough time just naming things.

“Maybe you could call Kerry Wordy’s management attitude the catholic work ethic as opposed to the protestant work ethic, since Catholic clergy say the rest of humanity is too illiterate or stupid to understand God, which greatly pissed me off when I was young, an Irish child.  But, whatever you call it, it’s bigotry as crazy as the Israelites saying the author of the Ten Commandments told them to kill all the Canaanites and steal their land.  Gee whillakers, Mr. Tolstoi!"

“You sound like a friend of mine, young fella,” said Lev, hardly grinning.

“I’m not the only person who reads history and thinks objectively,” said the finance-administrator.  “But there aren’t many others on Earth.”

“But seriously,” said Lev, “Do you think Ari’s as he is because he’s Judaic?”

“I’m not anti-Semitic,” said the finance-administrator, “although I am anti that term, because more Muslims than Jews are Semitic.  If I were anti-Jewish, I would point to Ari and say that he epitomizes the stereotype that anti-Israelites present to excuse themselves, calling Jews pecuniary, greedy and cheap.  But I’m not anti anything, except bigotry and hypocrisy and prejudice.

“So I have to say that Ari’s little like any other Jew I’ve met, and I’d be ashamed to own him, if I were Jewish.  In the same way, my new German ancestry makes me ashamed of owning Hitler, as I’m ashamed of those bigots calling themselves Christian in Ireland, being Irish from before.  I’m ashamed anyway, because being human makes me part of it all.  But what can I do?

“I think of Ira Hayes, the native American United States Marine who helped plant Old Glory on Iwo Jima and drowned drunk in a ditch at home.  Other citizens of this melting pot of huddled masses called him just a whiskey-drinking Indian.  I call him another victim of the bigotry of colonialism, of greed like Ari Hamm’s.  It seems to me that ‘just’ is the key word.

“Where is the justice?  I remember that organizing the United States civil rights movement began with a promise that justice would roll down like water, and I think of Ira Hayes drowning in a few inches of dirty water in a ditch.  Then I have to wonder how he and a huge proportion of other native Americans became whisky-drinkers.  Ghandi didn’t drink whiskey.

“Ghandi was an Indian who gave his life for his people.  Ira Hayes was a native American who risked his life for his people and for the people who beat him into being a hopeless drunk, and he gave his life at last for nothing.  I think of Woody Guthrie and his song of depression soup, saying that politicians may have seen through it, had it been just a little bit thinner.

“I think of Guthry’s protégé Pete Seeger, singing in the sixties and seventies along with the Civil Rights movement and the mess in Vietnam despite it, and I know people know those songs.  Seeger sang of Ira Hayes, and he asked a question in another song that makes me weep every time I hear it.  He asks who killed Norma Jean, and all of us did.  And no one owns up.”

“That’s partly why I renounced my books,” said Lev.  “The prejudicial references to people by their national origin, especially in War and Peace.  And there’s only one Negro character in that book, and none of the other characters are sure he’s for real.  Anyway, what you can do is what you’re doing, not being a French corporal.  If only all would stand and tell the truth.”

“Exactly,” agreed the finance-administrator.  “That was my favorite point in your book, although sometimes I’m close to accepting your general premise that nobody knows what he’s talking about, not even you.  I have a hunch that beauty and truth are not hiding and lying, and I strongly suspect that bowing out of being a French corporal isn’t cowardice.  I mean, it seems to me that bowing out of being a French corporal is nipping it in the bud, if one buds out soon enough, before ugly sets in.

“I mean that stuff I did in Lincoln County could have been unnecessary, if the incumbents had used the resources of their human integrity and never sold their souls for the promises of money the insurgents promised.  So, to me, the craziest character at L’Amore di Santa Clara seems to be the human resources specialist.

“She says Woody Allen is a genius.  Woody Allen made a fortune promoting self-pity, and now people like that human resources specialist feel sorry for him for screwing his adopted daughter.  It’s like French movies, after centuries of ignoring Shakespeare in favor of the Aristotelian unities, intellectualizing the Hegelian notion of dialectical idealism into agreement with Sergei Eisenstein’s dialectical imagery, his montage theory of cinematography.  I suspect that Eisenstein was right in his Zen notion that enlightenment can come from having your prejudices broken up by having your rationality forced outside the box, but the French intellectualize his theories back into the box.  And the box, the intellectual subject of most French films now, is feeling sorry for oneself for being unable to love.  Nothing genius in that, nothing creative, new.

“It’s like that Clingon character that’s supposed to be president now.  What can people desire from that, other than to be able to say that they can behave as he does, because he does and is the president?  And, if that’s why they voted for him, what do they desire for their children?  Abortion?

“A person could argue that that’s a good reason for abortion.  If kids are going to grow up with Clingon as a role model and their parents reinforcing that by telling them that they’d like them to be president of the united states, couldn’t we argue that we may as well put all humanity out of its misery?  What kind of parents are people who voted for Clingon?  And that economy business!

“Anyone who has given any honest attention to history since World War II, which certainly should be the baby-boomers who have lived it and voted for Clingon, must know that the economic boom during Clingon’s administration has come from the world stability from ending the Cold War.

“And anyone who knows basic economics knows that continuing it will require honest hard work, not the me-generation motivation Clingon’s example has inspired.  If the work-ethic keeps its current direction, no one will bother to produce anything, except new excuses for litigation.

“Maybe Kate Plate will sue L’Amore di Santa Clara for letting her steal too many of the bagels Starbucks donates, or maybe sue Starbucks for donating.”

“Oh!” said Lev.  “She must be the one with the muffins piled on the paper piled on her desk.  She’s your human resources specialist?”

“That’s what the other two K’s call her,” answered the finance-administrator.

“How did she get that job?” asked Lev.

“I don’t know,” said the finance-administrator.  “Someone who quit, complaining about corruption, told me she got it because her husband’s family has a lot of money.  She told me she left her last job because new management asked her to spend more time at her desk than she did at the water-cooler.  Those weren’t her exact words, but that’s what they added up to.  Must have been some job-interview, selecting her for L’Amore di Santa Clara.  She was there when we hired the quarter-stealing social-worker.”

“What was that last job of hers?” asked Lev.

“Human resources there too, she said,” said the finance-administrator.  “For the Boston Tab.  In most cities, most people consider ‘tabloid journalism’ an oxymoron.  But in Fits city, with the big dig and the pedophile priests and a homeless-shelter named for l’amore di Santa Clara practicing racial discrimination, the truth is weirder than the fiction in the tabloids.  So the Boston Tab is a respected newspaper.

“The part I don’t understand,” said Billy, “is whether those people are heartless or only thoughtless.  That’s the question that troubles me.”

“Only thoughtless, I hope,” said Lev.  “They don’t seem to me even to think of their reputations.  But I’m not sure.”

“And Hitler?” the finance-administrator wished to know as well.”

“The same, I think,” said Lev, “ultimately, through complexity.”

“Okay, Lev,” said Billy.  “Here’s what I want to know, about conserving and liberating.  Do humans show their hearts when they weep for Bambi in movie theatres, or when they behave at their dinner tables as though that weeping of theirs is for the possibility that burning the flora may have overcooked the faun?”

“Whew,” said Lev.  “I think that’s the fundamental question, and I don’t know the answer.  By the way, how did you get your job, that position with such lovely possibilities, with those people of such untoward complexities?”

“That’s a long story,” answered the finance-administrator.  “I just sort of fell into it after life of tumbling here and there, and then I fell in love with the place.”

“Tumbling how and where?” asked Lev.

 

“Okay,” said the finance-administrator.  “I’ll try to make a long story short.

“You must know about the Lincoln County wars, and I guess you can’t but know what purgatory is, God throwing us back to try again to get it right.  I was born again this century into a family that became so poor by the time I reached high school that I didn’t have a week’s change of socks.  The other kids treated me like dirt, and I started feeling that dirt was my life, now or before, new or old.  But, this time around, I tried to be more private, to focus more on my own self.   I tried to dig my own way out of the dirt.  Yes, I know what you’re thinking.  I’m a slow learner too.

“At first, I tried to get myself killed again, hoping to get another ticket, one out of here.  I jumped from roofs and climbed anything high, swinging from boughs as high and willowy as my embodied weight let me climb, but none of the boughs broke.

“When I was sixteen, I began traveling with the carnival, to get more into life where death is more possible.  When I was seventeen, I requested and won a senatorial nomination to attend the United States Military Academy at West Point.

“Of course, with my knowledge of past life, I passed the tests.  But my knowledge of my past life also told me I wouldn’t handle the discipline.  So, I turned the nomination down, and I enlisted in the Army and volunteered for Vietnam, in 1966.

“That was when I was eighteen, and I volunteered for the most dangerous duty, but the Army said my abilities were more needed in the rear echelon.  So I didn’t die as a snot-nosed lieutenant or as a combat engineer seeking explosives in dark tunnels.

“I turned down an assignment to Paris to go to Afghanistan, but I managed there to suffer but two attempts on my life and a fall from a motor-cycle in which I broke a crash-helmet, which I wore only because someone handed it to me that day.

“So, after ten years of such trying, I got stuck with an assignment in Indiana, about two-hundred miles from my this-life hometown.  So I left the Army and went to college, but still had that problem of feeling I was dirt, and was too shy for friends.

“Until then, guns-blazing was my only bravado.  So, I evaded extracurricular activities, and focused mostly on learning what was in the books my professors assigned, as far as I had to for the grades the professors offered for agreeing with them.

“I had a wife by then, but I’d married her more because she seemed to me to want me than because I thought I wanted her.  She was a nice girl, but I still had a sense of adventure or desire to see and do more, and marriage didn’t settle that by any means.

“So, when older than I’d died the other time, I took maybe a little too much to heart some psycho-babble from my psychology courses.  With a notion of ‘entitlement’ to what I felt I was missing, I committed what I think is the worst crime against a person.

“My sentence was ten to twenty years in prison, but I got out after a little more than five.  Part of that was for good behavior, and part of it was because of overcrowding in the prison.  The best that I can say of that is that I tried to use the time well.”

“I could have been killed there easily, a peckerwood on turf of many angry African Americans.  But, by then, I knew I wasn’t barking right.”

 “What did all that do to your marriage?” asked Lev.

“I may have gotten off, if I weren’t married,” answered the finance-administrator.  “I defended myself in court, partly because my court-appointed attorney plainly wasn’t working to do it, but mostly because I was ashamed of having my family and few friends see me there, and the attorney said he’d call character witnesses, including my wife.  He didn’t bother to contact the people I listed as character witnesses, although he said he’d tried and couldn’t reach them, although many of them had voicemail.  He didn’t try, and I was glad of that, but I never knew what he’d do or wouldn’t.

“Anyway, the prison-time did in our marriage.  In my fourth year there, my wife became pregnant by a friend of mine.  But weirder than that is that she repented and joined the Mormon Church and divorced me because I wouldn’t join it with her.  I read the Book of Mormon and had to wonder how a translation inspired by God of a book dug up in nineteenth-century New England could be word-for-word the same as translation of Isaiah by scholars in seventeenth-century old England.

“My wife replied that scholarship didn’t matter, and she said that she’d have to divorce me because otherwise she couldn’t get something she said the Mormons called the patriarchal blessing.  I didn’t argue that the Mormon Church forbids divorce, because her church or she apparently had put rationality out of her questions, and I wasn’t with her to give her the hugs she needed, to give her confidence in her sense.

“‘Your letters are too long for me to read,’ she wrote to me, leaving me wondering what she or anyone might say or do if I told them I was Billy the Kid, maybe what people said and did to Joan of Arc, but in some more modern way.  Maybe they’d have subjected me to mental-health profession, instead of to religious disease.  I bet you don’t know that Garrett killed me on Bastille Day.  I don’t expect that much attention.

“I spent most of my prison-time attending.  I made a list of about three-hundred of the books my public education had told me humanity most respected, and I read them in chronological order in hope of aligning my attitude with the social development of Earth.  Since the prison library was stocked mostly by prisoners’ requests, few of the books on my list were there.  But my wife sent them to me, until she got pregnant and joined the Mormon Church.  I guess she then had too much else to do.

“Oh, but I knew her loneliness and poverty, and I know how the Mormon hierarchy takes advantage of other despair and ignorance and such to get their tithes.  She sent a couple of the kids Mormons call missionaries to visit me in prison, with their short-cut hair and their short-sleeved shirts and their clip-on neckties, and I tried to talk with them about the Bible.  I tried to talk of better ways it tells.

“Yes,” said one.  “The Bible is very deep.”

“Sure are a lot of black people here,” said the other.

“They’re young,” said my wife, next time she visited.

“What about your own kids?” asked Lev.

“Two sons,” I answered.  “They were in early elementary school when I went to prison, and I was too busy struggling not to starve to death after I left prison.  So their mother, and the Mormon she married rather than keeping me or marrying her third son’s father, tried to raise them to be Mormons.  My oldest son committed suicide, thinking he’d otherwise go to prison for pedophilia, and my youngest son works for the United States Social Security Administration in a tiny town in Nebraska and thinks rave parties are sites of high philosophy and the epitome of camaraderie.  They’ve both gassed themselves, or been gassed by others’ gassing, in their separate ways.”

“I guess I see how you feel the way you do about parenting,” said Lev.  “How about the rest of your family this time around?  Brothers and sisters?”

“The rest of my family resents my education.  None of my siblings have graduated from college, and I’m an MBA.  They also think the reason I asked them not to visit me in prison is that I resented them.  I told them the reason was the same as my defending myself in court, that I was ashamed for them to see me there, but they don’t accept that.  Anyway, I can’t talk to them, because they don’t care to hear about the world outside themselves.  All I have to do to run them out of a room is to mention l’amore di Santa Clara.  I once wore a L’Amore di Santa Clara T-shirt to a family reunion.  No one mentioned it at all to me.  They conspicuously ignored.”

“Basically, their only interest in me is in their forgiving me.  They liked me much more when I was in prison than they do now that I’m working for a homeless-shelter.  Maybe they’ll like me better after L’Amore di Santa Clara fires me, but the last thing they’ll do is understand.  But they won’t know about it, because I can’t communicate with them.  Well, maybe I can, but I haven’t found out how to yet.

“Still, I have a crazy dream of family life.  Think of taking one of those rightly ramshackle antebellum plantation houses in the Mississippi delta and fixing it up into a foster home for the worst young results of the New Orleans public housing projects.  I’d like to do that with a wife while raising a daughter of ours so lovely.  Talk about a pipedream, in this life of mine!  How can that come true?”

“So you’re alone in this ghastly life of yours?” asked Lev.

“My youngest son and oldest living sister say I’ll die alone, because I don’t consort with them.  That’s the son who thinks rave parties are high philosophy, and that sister calls herself a Christian and says Joshua was right in trying to kill all the Canaanites, and she hasn’t said anything to me since I sent her an e-mail describing how the Alabama government set the dogs and fire-hoses on the praying African American children in Birmingham.  She lives near the Alabama line in Tennessee.

“But I don’t feel alone, except when I’m with people who pretend.  So I feel most alone when I’m with my family, and I feel most at home with homeless people.”

“Well,” said Lev.  “You seem at least good company to me, but you called that sister your oldest living sister.  Does that mean you have dead sisters older?”

“One,” answered the finance-administrator.  “An uncle molested her when she was nine, but the nearest she ever came to giving up on life was becoming a Star Trek fan, a trekkie.  She graduated from high school when she was 56 years old, the age in this life that I was last year.  That Christmas Eve, the last of the last past millennium, she died of a heart attack.  I wonder where God has her now.  The doctors said it was her first.  First physical, maybe.  Heart, attack.  Humanity.”

“Nothing wrong with trekkies,” said Lev.  “They tend to remember much and judge little.  I attended a convention of them in New Orleans, and I have friends more spacey than they are.   I bet she never thought she had to forgive anyone anything.  I bet she never tried to claim that right.  I bet she never called herself so good.”

“Not a snowball’s chance in hell of that,” said the finance-administrator.  “You want to know what drives me nuts about almost everyone L’Amore di Santa Clara pays to be experts there, the counselors and social workers and psychologists?”

“A guess of mine,” offered Lev, “is that they say you’re a numbers person.”

“And, worse than that, a computer person,” replied the finance-administrator.

“Is that because you’re good with their computers?”

“They compute.  I compute.  Of course.  How not?”

“You’re not afraid computers will steal your soul?”

“They’d have to have a soul of theirs for that,” answered the Finance-administrator.  “They’re tools to leave Earth time for better things, and for quicker communication, for truth, beauty.  Or so it seems to me.”

“I agree,” said Lev, “and I think you’re right that your story is quite long.  And I still don’t know how you got your job at L’Amore di Santa Clara.  Finish that part, if you can in fewer words than War and Peace, or if you can’t.  Computers can't compute quite all of this, as far as I can tell.”

“Well,” said the finance-administrator, “after I got out of prison, I couldn’t find a job.  I was up against both my criminal record and some of the residue from the stagflation of the seventies.  So I was on welfare for a while, until a friend from high school gave me a job at a motel she managed, and I went back to school for my MBA degree, mainly for the GI Bill money and student loans.

But, even with that degree, the best job I could find was as a convenience store manager, also on my friend’s recommendation.  So I did what many people do in such circumstances.  I became a drunk, abandoning my sensibilities.  That is, as far as I could.  But I didn’t quite quit.  I yet wished to win.

“Bumming through New Orleans, planning no destination I cared much to reach, I fell in love with the French Quarter.  I got a part-time job in an elegant little guesthouse in the quiet end of Bourbon Street, and my high school friend back home in Michigan loaned me enough money to deposit myself into a little slave-quarter apartment on Dauphine Street.  And, wonder of wonders, at last I felt at home.

“It helped that John James Audubon did most of his work on Birds of America on Dauphine Street, because I had checked that book out of my hometown public library this life, again and again as a child.  But more it was a general feeling I got whenever I was on the street.  Each morning, as I closed the gate of my house to walk to work, I looked around.  I saw the Creole architecture and the little Italian grocery across the street.  I saw its bicycle parked out front for deliveries.  I felt at home.

“And I nearly developed a career.  I went from my position as concierge for the little guesthouse to responsibility for all the computer systems in one of the city’s largest convention hotels, in less than two years.  And I married again.

“The friend from high school divorced and left her family to come to New Orleans and marry me.  But I had no more reason to marry her than I’d had to marry my first wife, and this second was not a person nearly as honest or kind.

“So we divorced, and my job fell apart, and I became a drunken bum again, and I left New Orleans with a pile of credit-card and student-loan debt and less than a dollar in my pocket, and I bummed America again, for my next two years, this life.

“Until I wandered into Boston.  Here, I checked into the Veterans Shelter and there received a suit for job interviews.  I went to Accountemps, and Accountemps sent me to l’amore di Santa Clara.  Five weeks later, L’Amore di Santa Clara hired me.

“Five years later, I bought my condominium, and now they’re about to fire me, while paying me half again as much as my initial salary there.  They’ll fire me simply because I told them and no one else what they know full well, what they’re doing.”

“Why did you stay so long?” asked Lev.

“The place is important,” said the finance-administrator.  “Also, I have the hots for a hypoglycemic Roman Catholic theologian working there.  She does whatever feels right to her, mostly helping with immigration while she’s paid to council substance abusers.  But the main reason I stayed so long is that the place is important.”

“The same reason you’re complaining,” said Lev.

“Exactly,” said the finance-administrator.  “But I’m not going to become a drunken bum again.  I’ve already fouled too many nests, and mine more than any other.  And I’m just not going to do that anymore, as those news-grouper hypocrites do.  I hope and pray I can now help to clean some nests.  I’m trying.

“And firing me won’t stop my efforts.  At last I found something I could do well with a sense of worthiness, and I feel like your character Pierre in War and Peace.  I mean when he realizes that people pretending to be benefactors only try to benefit their own veniality.  I wonder if Peter ever figured out Paul.”

“Some documents,” Lev answered, “suggest they didn’t love each other as Jesus said we should love our enemies.”

 

Although Lev and the finance-administrator sat alone in the cellar, a waitress was keeping up with them and had brought them several rounds.  The finance-administrator had answered more than Lev had questions for, but neither of them was ready to give up the night or the camaraderie of conversation.

“I’m drunk,” said the finance-administrator.  “Want to see what drunk is?”

“I’m Russian,” said Lev.  “I think I know what drunk is.”

“Want to see what Irish drunk is?”

“I haven’t seen that,” said Lev.

“Let’s go to Southy.”

“Why in hell not.”

So they pushed back their chairs, preparing to leave.  But, before they could stand, a man came fairly bounding down the stairs.  His trousers were plaid knickers, and his cap matched his trousers but had a large puffy ball on top.  In one of his hands, the man had two open bottles of the brand of beer Lev and the finance-administrator were drinking.  In his other hand were another bottle of beer and a putter.

“I overheard your conversation,” said this apparition.  “Mind if I join you?”

“Not at all,” said Lev, sliding back into his chair.

The finance-administrator didn’t answer, but he slid back into his chair and pulled it back to the table, as the apparition set a bottle of beer in front of each of them and sat, leaning the putter against the fourth chair.

“You know,” said the finance-administrator, “you look like Bob Hope?”

“I get that a lot,” answered the apparition.

“You even sound like Bob Hope,” added the finance-administrator.

“I am Bob Hope,” said the apparition.

“Who’s Bob Hope?” asked Lev.

“I am,” said Bob.

“He’s a comedian,” said the finance-administrator.  “He goes around to war zones and makes the troops laugh.  He’s been doing it since World War II.  Too young for World War I, I guess.”

“Not by much,” said Bob.  “I’m almost a hundred years old.  I’m about ten years older than Theresa.  You know, that woman who sat down on that bus in Alabama and wouldn’t get up.  But I made a slight miscalculation and was born in England with a name that wouldn’t sell well here in the United States of America.  So I had to clear all that up, moving here and making a name for myself.  Making a name for myself.  Get it?”

“Yeah,” said Lev.  “I get it.”

“So what are you doing here?” asked the finance-administrator.

“Like I said,” said Bob, “I overheard your conversation.  If you’re going to Southy, I’d like to tag along.  I know it’s dangerous there, and I know you’ve given up six-shooters and heavier artillery, but I brought my putter.”

“What’s a putter?” asked Lev.

“That’s a putter,” said Bob, pointing to his, leaning against the chair.

“What’s it for?” asked Lev.

“Putting,” said the finance-administrator, beating Bob to the punch.  “In golf.  It’s a game, from Scotland.  I guess that’s why Bob’s knickers and cap are plaid.  The putter’s for rolling little white balls across short grass and into holes, for exercise, for pride.”

“Why don’t you just kick them in?” asked Lev.

“Why did you write fourteen-hundred pages just to tell people they don’t know what they’re talking about?” asked Bob.  “But I know it’s rude to try to answer a question with a question, and you can use a putter to beat people to death too, if you’re Irish.”

“Why did you go all over the world making soldiers laugh?” asked Lev.

“Nasty job,” said Bob.  “But somebody had to do it.  I mean the soldiers’ jobs, not mine.  And I don’t mean they needed to do it or thought it needed to be done.  I mean they had it to do, like your French corporals.  I thought they could use a little chuckle.  Besides, I like to keep track of things.  Everywhere.”

“Alright,” said the finance-administrator.  “I’m glad we got all that cleared up.  Are we ready to go, before the subway shuts down?”

“What’s a subway?” asked Lev.

“We’ll show you,” said Bob.


 

 

 

 

Chapter 23

The Miserable

 

So they whistled past the graveyard and on across the Common to the Park Street T-stop and hopped the Red Line to Andrew Station.  A young woman on the train wore a T-shirt saying:  “Homelessness is big business!  But who’s getting the business?”

Emerging from the tunnel, the finance-administrator led his compadres past the Li’l' Peach convenience store across the street from the station and up the little street beside it and pointed out his condominium, as they passed on their way to the bars.

“I heard that part of your conversation, too,” said Bob.  “Do you like your place?”

“The apartment I left to buy it was bigger,” said the finance-administrator, “and I felt like I was rattling around in it.  This place is perfect for me, new wooden floors and fresh paint and a nice little wood-burning fireplace and a little deck on the back for reading and getting a little sun in summer.  Maybe some people need more.  I don’t.”

“The only problem I have there is my upstairs neighbor.  She’s a trustee in the condominium association, and she asked during our first meeting after I bought the place that someone else be, and I volunteered.  I signed some papers, but she didn’t provide copies to me, although I asked her to.  But that’s a meagerly related problem.

“She resents.  In that same meeting, she asked whether anyone liked flowers.  I said I do, and I suggested azaleas for that little bed there beside the steps, and she accepted that recommendation, or said she did.  She also has children visit her often, but she pulls up the azaleas before they can root, like a sneak-thief.

“She likes to talk about law, as church Christians like to talk about medicine, and I guess she wanted another trustee to reduce her liability.  But she called the attorney who owns a condo in the other side of the duplex a slumlord, after he rented his condo to an attractive apparently businesslike young black woman.

“Appropriately, she’s Irish and named for the mother of Jesus and the adulterer of Paris, peace in Canaan and war in Troy.  I don’t know what her problem is, whether her mother enjoyed flowers more than her, or what.  But she reminds me of little old ladies who grow gardens and rail at children who get near enough to enjoy them.

“Bigotry and resentment seem to me to pervade South Boston, beyond its fame for racism.  The part I don’t understand is like the part I don’t understand about Israelis and Palestinians.  After how United States citizens treated the Irish immigrants from the potato famine, how so little sympathy?

“But, of course, I may be wrong throughout.  I’m not a ghost for nothing, or at least I hope I'm not.”

“How are you going to make the mortgage payments after L’Amore di Santa Clara fires you?” asked Bob.

“Maybe I’ll not be able to,” said the finance-administrator.  “But I’m not going to sell my soul for mortgage payments.”

“I’m thinking of the people leaving the wounded, to take their furniture from Moscow before Napoleon got there,” said Lev.

“You know,” said Bob.  “I own a lot of Texaco stock, and I have a friend who used Texas oil-connections to do a lot of good on Earth.”

“Do you know that Jazzin gent who chairs our board of directors?” asked the finance-administrator.  “He seems to me dedicated to minimizing the good he can do, and he could do much, but his suits are tight.”

“No,” answered Bob, “I don’t.  But he can’t be all bad with that name.  Do you know that a Lebanese owns the only bowling alley in Afghanistan, and uses it to collect a little intelligence on the side?”

“I did know that,” said the finance-administrator.  “I didn’t spend ten years in the United States Army for nothing.  Do you know that twelve tanks overthrew the Afghan monarchy?

“Who gives a crap?” asked Lev.  “Where’s this bar you’re taking us to?  Did you know that I have a Texas oil-friend, too?”

 

“Right there,” said the finance-administrator, pointing to an unlit Budweiser advertisement above a dirty doorway.

By now, the finance-administrator had led his motley crew out of Ulster Street and onto Dorchester Street and across Old Colony Avenue.  The Budweiser sign was the only sign on that little building wedged between two larger ones, and no name was on the sign other than Budweiser.  Across the street was one of Boston’s under-maintained housing projects, between the bar and the beach on the old harbor.  Inside, the place stank, of beer and cigarette-smoke and the sweat of homeless people.

The floor was of nicked-up unmatched asphalt tiles, and the walls were of veneer paneling, like in house-trailers.  The ceiling was acoustical with holes apparently punched by cue-sticks, and with blue spots where the tips had hit without penetration.  The barstools were as unmatched as the floor-tiles.  But the bar was wood and by far the cleanest surface in the place.  And the place was full of customers.

The finance-administrator motioned Lev and Bob to sit at one of the two tables there.  A woman was sitting at that table alone, and the finance-administrator bent and kissed her on a cheek, and she said Hi and smiled.

“That’s my Bill,” she said.  “Gas bill, electric bill, phone bill, . . . .“

“These are some friends of mine,” said the finance-administrator.  “Bob and Lev.  This is Shirley.  Mind if we join you?”

“No, sure,” said Shirley, offering a hand to the others, while the finance-administrator went to the bar.

“Hey, Jim,” said the finance-administrator to a man sitting at the bar.

“Hello, my friend,” said the man, briefly looking at the finance-administrator, then turning back to the television in front of him high behind the bar, although its sound was down as the jukebox played.

“Hey, Jimmy,” said the finance-administrator to the bartender.

“What can I getcha?” asked Jimmy.

“There are five Jims in here,” said Shirley to Bob and Lev.

“I’ll have the usual,” said the finance-administrator.

“This?” asked Jimmy, touching the tap-handle for a beer called Natural Ice.

“Yeah,” said the finance-administrator, “and two Buds and a Coors Light.”

“Bottles?” asked Jimmy.

“Yeah,” said the finance-administrator.  “And whatever John’s drinking down there.  He looks like he’s running low.”

He pointed to a man at the front end of the bar, who looked older than both the first Jim to whom he had spoken and Shirley, although all three of them looked quite old.

“You mean Mr. Quinn?” asked Jimmy.

“Yeah,” said the finance-administrator.  “And it looks like Jamie’s ready for one.”

“You want to buy Jamie a beer?” asked Jimmy.

“Yeah,” said the finance-administrator.  “How’s your life, Jimmy?”

“These viruses are kicking my ass,” answered Jimmy, drawing the finance-administrator’s draft.

“That’s because you’re a faggot,” said a fat man, who until then had been sleeping at the bar on the other side of the finance-administrator from Jim.

“How’s it going, Jack?” asked the finance-administrator.

“Can’t complain,” answered Jack, taking a sip of his beer.  “Do I know you?”

Jimmy didn’t reply to Jack or look at him.  He set a glass of Natural Ice in front of Jamie, on the other side of Jack from the finance-administrator, and he pointed at the finance-administrator.  Jamie looked at the finance-administrator.

“Hey, Billy!” he said.  “Did you just get here?”

“I’ve been here for hours,” said the finance-administrator.  “You’re just not paying attention.”

Jamie looked into his beer and didn’t answer.  Turning to look at Mr. Quinn, the finance-administrator raised his right index-finger to signal to Mr. Quinn that he was welcome to the beer for which Mr. Quinn had signaled thanks by raising quakily his own right index-finger, looking at the finance-administrator.  Jamie took a long swig of his beer, as the finance-administrator carried the bottles of Bud and Coors to the table and set them in front of their recipients.  When the finance-administrator turned back to the bar to get his draft, a man entered the bar and stopped in front of him.

“Hey, Tommy,” said the finance-administrator.  “Where’s your dog?”

“He died,” said Tommy.  “That computer stuff you told me worked.”

“I’m sorry,” said the finance-administrator.  “Are you alright?”

“Yeah,” said Tommy.  “It made a lot of sense.”

Tommy continued on toward the pool-table, which was so near the backdoor of the bar that some shots required either using a short stick or opening the door.  The finance-administrator told Lev and Bob later that one could tell a new customer from a regular by the choice in that, and he said the door was usually unlocked because of fire regulations and so customers could go out back and smoke dope or whatever.  Beside the door was a poster depicting the World Trade Center, with some text about how hateful Afghans are.  The finance-administrator sat down at the table.

“There’s a picture of Mark Twain advertising Dewar’s Scotch in that frame, under that newspaper poster,” he said, pointing.  “So, Shirley, how’s it going?”

“Good,” said Shirley.

“How’s the cancer?”

“I’ve got another surgery next week,” she said, after looking at her bandaged hand, which was in her lap as her other hand held her bottle of beer on the table.

“Heard anything from Cheryl?”

“She’ll never come in here again,” answered Shirley.  “After you left, after you gave her that book, she threw the book at me.  She was so drunk she fell down, right over there.  Did I tell you what she did at the house?”

“No,” said the finance-administrator.  “What did she do?”

“The guy told her all she had to do was not go on the third floor, but he caught her on the third floor going through his stuff, and he found some money missing.”

“She told me outside, the day I gave her the book,” said the finance-administrator, “that she’d been to court that morning to put a restraining order on some guy, and that he was there trying to put one on her.  Is that what that was about?”

“I don’t know,” said Shirley.  “But she’ll never get in here again.  She was laughing, haw haw haw.  You know how she laughs.”

“Yes,” said the finance-administrator.  “I know how she laughs.”

“Who is she?” asked Bob.  "Who’s Cheryl?  What’s she to you?”

“She’s kind of a mess,” said the finance-administrator.  “But I like her.  So I asked her for a date, to see the American Ballet Theatre perform Giselle at the Wang Theatre, around the corner from L’Amore di Santa Clara.  You’d appreciate that, Lev.”

“Yes,” said Lev.  “That’s one thing the French did for Russia, give Tchaichovski a raison d’etre, inspire Petipa.  Stuff like that.

“And Giselle is a ghost,” said Bob.  “Did she accept?”

“Yes,” said the finance-administrator.  “And she was talking about buying a dress for the occasion, hunter green, she said.  But she backed out after I bought tickets for great seats, a couple of days before the performance.  So I gave the tickets to Shirley and a picture-history of the American Ballet Theatre to Cheryl.”

“I gave the tickets to Johnnie, a friend of Jamie’s,” said Shirley.  “I don’t know anything about that stuff.  Cheryl said they might be worth money and wanted to scalp them.  I told her the tickets were for her, not the money.”

“I don’t know anything about much,” said the finance-administrator.  “She’s told me about two different men beating her up.  I’m starting to think she likes that sort of thing, more than beautiful things like ballet.”

“I heard she might be in jail,” said Shirley.  “That’s what I heard.”

“This country is crazier than Russia,” said Lev.  “There, we beat servants.”

“Did Johnnie use the tickets?” asked the finance-administrator.

“I don’t know,” said Shirley.  “Ask Jamie.”

Now, Jamie was standing behind the fifth of the five chairs at the table, with two bottles of Bud and one of Coors in his hands.

“Mind if I sit down?” he asked.

“No, sure,” said the finance-administrator, as Shirley shrugged.

“Jamie Lewis, Liverpool, England,” said Jamie, shaking hands around, after distributing the bottles of beer, and he returned to the bar for the drafts for himself and the finance-administrator.

“Besides,” said Shirley, while he was gone, “she said she thinks you’re queer.  She said somebody told her they saw you kissing Jamie on the mouth.”

“That’s not funny,” said Bob.  “But it thickens the plot.”

“That doesn’t happen much in public in Russia,” said Lev.

“I swear I didn’t do it,” said the finance-administrator.

“England isn’t anything but a colony of France,” said the Finance-administrator, after Jamie returned with the draughts and sat in the fifth chair.  “England became a world power out of resentment of William the Conqueror.  But that isn’t why I didn’t do it.  I prefer the warm wet, regression.  Know what I mean?

“Hm?” asked Jamie.  “What are you guys up to?”

“You know,” said Bob, “you look like Rod Stewart?”

Jamie didn’t answer, except with a smile and a sip of his beer.

“He used to be a Rod Stewart impersonator,” said the finance-administrator.  “He came here from Liverpool as a male prostitute, with that Rod Stewart stuff to help market him, and for the woman who recruited him, and married him.”

“A boy-toy,” said Jamie, smiling again and lifting his shirt to reveal golden rings in his nipples, besides a beer-belly befitting drinking beer for most of the last half-century.

“Now he blows up balloons for a living,” said the finance-administrator, “or to supplement his third wife’s income as some sort of clerk for the Commonwealth."

“How do you get paid for blowing up balloons?” asked Bob.

“I have my own business,” said Jamie.  “Something Special.  I do balloons for parties, bouquets for people in the hospital, singing telegrams, stuff like that.  My second wife does it too and throws me her overflow, and I have a website Billy’s helping me with, and I advertise in the Yellow Pages, those bastards.”

“The second wife was the boy-toy recruiter,” said the finance-administrator.

“What bastards?” asked Bob.  “The Yellow Pages people?”

“Yeah!” said Jamie.  “They overcharge me, and they keep trying to collect, and they put me in the wrong category, and they screwed up my web site.   Billy’s helping me get them to fix my website, and he showed me they’ve got me in the wrong category.”

“Did Johnnie use those ballet tickets?” asked the finance-administrator.

“What ballet tickets?” said Jamie.  “Yeah!  Of course!  I think so.”

At that moment, a short man with a black mustache and a camouflage hat with its brim folded down entered the bar and sat silently at the bar with his back to the table.  A few minutes later, Jimmy brought another round of beer to the table.

“Hey, Tio!” said Jamie.

“Hey, Tio!” said the finance-administrator.

“What?” said the small mustachioed man, turning to the table.

“Come join us,” said the finance-administrator, dragging an empty chair from the other table, after getting a nod of approval from that table’s occupants.

Tio, looking a little reluctant, moved from the bar to the table.  He sat in the chair and set his bottle of Heinekens on the table.  He opened his eyes wide and smiled and looked at each of the others, one at a time, left to right.

“Thanks for the beer,” said the finance-administrator.

“Thanks for the beer,” said Jamie.

“Tio’s a gypsy,” said the finance-administrator.

“I’m a gypsy,” said Tio.

“He’s from Romania,” said the finance-administrator.

“Romania,” said Tio.

“That’s like Russia,” said Jamie.  “Same thing.”

“Romania isn’t Russia,” said Lev.  “You British are worse than the French, maybe even worse than the Germans.  How did you get here from Romania?”

Jamie grinned, and Tio declined to answer.

“It’s a secret,” said Tio.  “I’m a spy.  Everybody’s a spy.  That’s why we have so many niggers and Russians in this country.  She’s a Jap.  Look.”

He nodded toward a woman entering the bar, a dark-haired woman with a ring in her nose, and somewhat oriental features, maybe.  The woman was remarkably physically weighty, and her T-shirt revealed her breasts to be below where a brazier might hold them.  She walked to the restroom, speaking to no one, and went in.

“See?” said Tio, as she passed the jukebox on her return from the toilet.

“Up yours, Tio,” said the woman.

“How’s it going, Pauline?” asked the finance-administrator.

“Oh, hi,” said Pauline.

“How’s your new marketing approach?”

“What?” asked Pauline, gazing away but stopping at the table.

“How’s your new marketing approach?”

“Fine!” said Pauline, now smiling at the finance-administrator.

“Still losing weight,” said the finance-administrator.  “And no bra.”

She lifted her T-shirt, confirming that indeed she wore no bra.

“Let’s see down here,” said someone at the pool table.

Pauline turned in that direction and repeated the display.  After a few speechless seconds, she sat at the other table, behind Tio.

“What can I getcha?” asked Jimmy from the bar.

“Water,” said Pauline, and she sank into silence.

“Jim,” said the finance-administrator, to the only other person now at the other table, not the Jim who had been watching television but was now gone, but a younger Jim in a freshly starched and pressed white shirt.  “Where’s your girlfriend?”

“Who’s my girlfriend?” asked Jim.

“Cheryl,” said the finance-administrator.

“She’s not my girlfriend,” said Jim.  “We’re just friends.  I hear she’s in the shelter for battered women in Cambridge.  That’s what I heard.  I don’t know.”

Another man entered the bar, a balding man in an undershirt, no outer shirt.  He stopped and stared at the finance-administrator, before turning to the bar and telling Jimmy what he could get him.  After ordering, he turned and punched the finance-administrator in the ribs.  Then he leaned back, staring again.

“You’re getting fat, Ralph” said the finance-administrator.

“Fat?” exclaimed Ralph.  “You want a piece of me?”

“Which piece?” asked the finance-administrator.

Ralph laughed and walked on back to the pool table, where Jimmy had his beer waiting for him.  All at Shirley’s table quieted for a while, until the next customer entered the bar and didn’t respond to the finance-administrator’s greeting.

“I told you about that, didn’t I?” asked Shirley.

“About what?” asked the finance-administrator.

“Cheryl asked me once, before I knew you were interested in her, who was the best choice in here, and I told her Freddy.”

“You didn’t tell me,” said the finance-administrator.  “But I was here the first night she left with him.  She was sitting with Jim here awhile, but then she sat with Freddy and left with him.  He’s a good choice, I guess.  He has property in Maine.”

“That’s important!” said Lev.

“It’s unimproved,” said the finance-administrator.

“Any oil under it?” asked Bob.

“He told me he’s just a friend, too,” said the finance-administrator, looking at Freddy now sitting beside Mr. Quinn at the front end of the bar.

“She’ll take you for everything you’ve got,” said a thin man with big eyes and camouflage combat-boots, who had come in and filled the seat at the bar Jamie had vacated, turning now to the finance-administrator.

“Donna says you’re a mook,” said the finance-administrator.

“I’m not a mook,” said the big-eyed man in combat-boots.

“Anyway, I don’t have anything,” said the finance-administrator.

As the man in the combat-boots turned back to the bar, another man entered.  He looked around and walked up to Freddy and punched him square in the face.  Then he turned and left the bar, walking out the door and leaving Freddy’s nose bleeding.  Freddy looked at the man as he left, and then down the bar at Jimmy.  Then he looked down at his beer, as a drop of blood dripped there.  He looked at Jimmy again.

“I never saw him before in my life,” said Freddy.

The finance-administrator rose from his chair and walked to Freddy.

“Jimmy,” said the finance-administrator.  “You got any napkins?”

“I’m alright,” said Freddy, his own fist now at his nose.

The bar didn’t use cocktail napkins, but Jimmy found some old ones, maybe from past marketing wishes, and he took Freddy a few.   Freddy accepted the napkins and began holding them, one at a time, to his nose.

By this time, a third person had joined Pauline and Jim at the other table, and he rose from his chair.  He took a couple of steps toward the toilet and stopped, looking down at the finance-administrator, who had returned to his chair.

“How’s it going, Joe?” asked the finance-administrator, of this man maybe as old as Shirley, one of his arms in a sling.”

“Let it stanch!” said Joe.  “It’ll just keep bleeding, if he keeps messing with it!  Even I know that!”

“Tell him,” said the finance-administrator, and Joe passed on to the toilet.

Bob’s putter was sitting idle between his legs at the table.

 

“I realize this is a combat zone,” said Bob.  “But I think my learning-curve has peaked for it.  Do you know of any other places?”

“Want to go to Kiley’s?” asked the finance-administrator, looking at Jamie.

“These guys don’t want to go to Kiley’s,” said Jamie.

“I want to go to Kiley’s,” said Lev.

“I want to go to Kiley’s,” said Bob.

“You’re in charge,” said Jamie.

“You’re in charge,” said Tio.

“All for one,” said the finance-administrator.  “One for all.”

“But now there are five of us,” said Jamie.

“I thought you were an engineer,” said the finance-administrator.

“I can’t do that kind of calculation,” said Jamie.

“The Pythagorean theorem is too much for you,” said the finance-administrator to Jamie, and then he told Lev and Bob that Jamie had been a mechanical engineer before becoming a Rod Stewart impersonating boy-toy.

“Calculate this,” said Jamie.  “Calibrate that.”

So they agreed to go to Kiley’s upon finishing that round of their beer.  Before they left, Christine and Raymond came in and did whatever they do in the toilet despite the pen-and-ink sign on its door proscribing more than one person being in it at once.  But Bob wasn’t interested in that kind of combat.  So they left.

“Do you want to go with us?” the finance-administrator asked Pauline.

“Where are you going?” asked Pauline.

“Kiley’s,” answered the finance-administrator.

“Not this time,” answered Pauline.

“Alright,” said the finance-administrator.

They rose to leave, but had to wait a few minutes, because little fat bald kidney-cancer Bobby and his big-breasted laughing girlfriend Pearl had come in, and Bobby had played “God Bless America” on the juke box, and everybody in the bar sang along with the CD.  Of course the five musketeers had to join in that before their next battle.


 

 

 

 

Chapter 24

Catch 22

 

At last on the street, the finance-administrator led the way again, around the corner where a Cingular Wireless shop did a lot of business with the neighborhood drug-dealers, past Kelly’s to Kiley’s.  Kelly's, besides being a big bar, was a restaurant where prostitutes got themselves wined and dined before springing their profession on the johns.  As poor as this neighborhood was, it had a lot of commerce.

It was on the walk up Old Colony Avenue to Kiley’s that the finance-administrator told Bob and Lev about the back door of the other bar, and let them know a little more about the culture there as well.  Obviously he’d paid a lot of attention.

“Sorry, Bob,” said the finance-administrator.  “A lot of Irish revolutionaries used to hang out at the end of the bar where John Quinn was.  I don’t know what happened to them, but none of them go there much anymore.  Assassins, terrorists, people like that.”

“That’s alright,” said Bob.  “Nice people there.  How about Kiley’s?”

“A few murderers,” said the finance-administrator.  “But not much political.”

Bob strode on like Fred Astaire, using his putter like Fred Astaire’s canes.

“So Jamie,” said the finance-administrator.  “I heard you have a penis ring.”

“Who told you that?” asked Jamie.  “Did Tio tell you that?”

“No,” said the finance-administrator.  “Shirley told me.”

Neither Jamie nor Tio responded further, and Bob and Lev didn’t so much as laugh.  The five of them walked silently the rest of the way to Kiley’s, except when Jamie stopped to express sympathy for a cat lying dead in the gutter, and the finance-administrator spoke up, whatever, whyever.

“You know,” said the finance-administrator, “I just thought of something.  You know that Bobby back there with kidney cancer?  Well, there was another Bobby working part-time for l’amore di Santa Clara doing things like sweeping and mopping, and he had to go through dialysis daily besides having some other physical and mental problems, and he showed me what a little despot that Kate Plate is.

“Like Ari, she shuts her door a lot, always when she’s counseling employees in her responsibility as a human resources specialist, except for Bobby.  Him, when he was out sick more than she thought was good for l’amore di Santa Clara, she loudly berated with her door wide open.  Everybody on that admin. floor could hear that.

“Why didn’t anyone do anything about it?” asked Jamie.

“I don’t know,” said the finance-administrator.

 

 Kiley’s was a keno bar.  It’s main business was sucking money out of poor people trying to get rich by gambling away what little income they had.  Most of the customers sat quietly at tables, scribbling on their little keno cards with their little keno pencils and watching their chances on televisions hanging from the barroom ceiling.

The finance-administrator walked into the bar, and the others followed.

“Hi, Peggy,” he said to the barmaid, a young woman smiling at him.

“Hi, Bill,” she said.  “What can I get for you and your friends?”

“Two bottled Buds, two bud drafts, and a Heinekens, please.”

“You got it,” said the young woman, quickly going to work.

“Peggy won four-million dollars in the lottery a few years ago,” said the finance-administrator, motioning to a table near the bar.  “Do we want to sit down?”

“My husband won four-million dollars in the lottery,” corrected Peggy, as she moved quickly about behind the bar, gathering the beer they’d ordered from her.

The finance-administrator looked back at her left hand.

“She’s usually wearing a big diamond engagement-ring,” he said.

“There’s your chance,” said Jamie.

“I don’t think so,” said the finance-administrator.

“I’ll buy,” said Tio, returning to the bar to accept the order as the others sat.

“I’ll get the next one,” said the Finance-administrator, looking around.

At a table nearer the back of the barroom, in a section stepped a little higher than the section before the bar, a thin bald man with several front teeth missing sat with some people looking more able to do conventional business. The finance-administrator looked at him and back to Lev and Bob, before speaking again.

“That guy spent five years in Walpole Prison,” said the finance-administrator, loudly enough for the man to hear him.

“You again,” said the thin man, not grinning or smiling.

“He’s going to kill you someday,” said Jamie.

“Maybe,” said the finance-administrator.  “Maybe not.”

“How do you know he was in prison?” asked Bob.

“He told me,” answered the finance-administrator.

“Where?” asked Lev.

“In here,” said the finance-administrator.

“Why?” asked Bob.

“I don’t know,” said the finance-administrator.  “Maybe he wanted to impress me.  Maybe he wanted to scare Jamie.”

“You don’t seem afraid of much,” said Bob.

“Allah’s will,” said the finance-administrator.  “Or yea though I walk.  However one says it, that’s the way I feel.  Cowards die a thousand deaths.  Etcetera.”

“This place sucks,” said Bob.  “All these people wasting their lives wishing for something they wouldn’t know what to do with if they got it.  At least those people at that other bar talked with one another

“I agree,” said the finance-administrator.  “I can never drink more than one beer in here.  I just stop here on my way to Whitey’s, so I won’t be too sober when I get there.  But I can’t finish a beer in most Boston bars.

“You finished a few in Remington’s,” said Lev.

“That’s because we were talking about something besides sports or each other’s Saabs or how much money each of us is going to make than the other or what rich or famous people condescend to speak to us or how smart we are, having gone to Harvard or someplace we can argue to be better, or less pretentious.  In New Orleans, I spent most of my spare time in bars, and I had a reputation for being one of the most interesting conversationalists in the Quarter.  But, in Boston, I almost never went to bars, until I found the one we just left.  Those people are just trying to get by.

“A little like Remington Bosworth, they’re just looking for a job, a way to be worthy, important.  Remington’s seems to me to be a fitting name for a bar, referring to mass production of firearms so that people can kill each other more cheaply, and so feel their power over others more cheaply, while philosophers say paradox is rare.

“Mark Twain, I guess trying to say what I’m trying to say, said:  ‘And you are but a thought--a vagrant thought, a useless thought, a homeless thought, wandering forlorn among the empty eternities!’  So, what do we do?  Quit?”

“So we’re going to Whitey’s?” asked Jamie.

“I don’t have a problem with that,” said the finance-administrator.

“I don’t have a problem with that,” said Tio.

“They have bottles of Rolling Rock for $1.50,” said Jamie.

“I don’t have a problem with that,” said Tio.

“I like the bars in New Orleans, too,” said Lev.  “Do you like Molly’s?”

            “Which one?” asked the finance-administrator.

            “At the Market,” answered Lev.

            “It’s my favorite,” said the finance-administrator.  “Do you know Maggie?  The barmaid who drew that portrait of Yeats behind the bar?”

            “Sure,” said Lev.  “But she doesn’t work there anymore.  She opened a gallery of her own and took that portrait with her.  Just left a print.”

            “Good for her,” said the finance-administrator.  “The other Molly’s is more like Whitey’s, but darker and smaller.”

            “The Molly’s on Toulouse Street, just off Bourbon,” said Lev.  “Do you know Maya, the barmaid there?  Tall thin graceful black woman?”

            “Sure,” said the finance-administrator.  “She worked at Kagan’s before legalizing gambling forced it closed, the punk bar on Decatur Street.

“Maya, I think, is a national landmark.”

 

            The walk to Whitey’s was past a public housing project now defunct.  In darkness of its defunctness, Tio said he had to pee and did it behind a big steel telephone-switchbox, while we others waited.

            “This really pisses me off,” said Jamie.

            “He should have done it before we left the house?” said Bob.

            “Tearing down this housing,” said Jamie, looking at Bob and then at the finance-administrator.  “My brother Georgie still lives in Liverpool, and he lives on the dole better than I do here with my business.  You don’t know what the rent is for the dump Laurie and I live in.  This country sucks.”

            “Love it or leave it,” said Bob.

            “I love my wife,” said Jamie.

            “Take her with you,” said the finance-administrator.

            “She won’t go,” said Jamie.  “She’s afraid of flying.”

            “So here we are in the dark,” said Lev, “pissing and moaning.”

            “You don’t understand,” moaned Jamie, now pissing behind a tree.

            “I understand,” said Lev, “that the American Henry James wrote about how much more complex European mentality is than American mentality, and I understand that the complexity is all bologna.  The complexity of the English and the French is in their making excuses to feel sorry for themselves and to hate other people, while Americans and Russians mainly just try to get along.  Dostoevski is more popular in England and France than I am, because he promotes pitying dirt-bags because their feelings and failings are more complicated than honest people’s.  Americans don’t like me because my books are too long, and they’re so long because I repeat myself, trying to explain the obvious.  Try to explain how blue is the sky.”

            “I don’t read,” said Jamie.  “I’m a sex maniac.”

            “Yeah, right,” said the finance-administrator.  “Why don't you have any kids?  You told me shaving pubic hair is sexy, and you’re too lazy to go on the web enough to check out porn.  If you like mounds of Venus shaved to look like refrigerators, don’t you like tits made of silicon?  What’s the difference between silicon-chip sex and silicon breastfeeding?  Well, I guess it’s all natural, since silicon comes from sand.”

            “Sure,” said Jamie.  “Do you think I’m stupid?  In my business, you have to know the difference between latex and Mylar.  You can’t take latex balloons into hospitals anymore.  I know that stuff.  I’m an engineer!”

 

            Whitey’s, on West Broadway, had a big pool table.  And it had unfinished wood floors and a long mahogany bar, but it was no fancier than the other bars this motley crew visited that night.  Like the bar on Dorchester Street, it had no sign out front or anywhere else indicating its owner's name, maybe because its owner was Whitey Bolger.  There, the five musketeers sat at the tables behind the pool table, and the finance-administrator brought the Rolling Rock from the bar.  He sat down, but he quickly stood back up and put quarters on the pool table.

“We’re playing for twenty dollars,” said one of the players.

“I don’t have a problem with that,” said the finance-administrator.

He left the quarters and sat back down, and a small dark-haired woman came and tapped him on a shoulder.  The finance-administrator looked up at her and smiled.

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