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I was a revolutionary, p.10

I Was a Revolutionary, page 10


I Was a Revolutionary

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  On what would turn out to be one of our last days together, Johnny asked how my novel was coming. He was calling me Mikey by then, like he was my uncle, like he’d known me a long time, though we’d been acquaintances for only five or six weeks. That’s exactly what he said: “Mikey, how’s the novel coming?” I was surprised. I could count on one hand the number of times he’d asked me a question more substantive than what I cared to drink. I was honest. I told him it wasn’t going very well. Maybe he was right, I said. Maybe I was wasting my time with fiction. How could it trump a story as wonderfully true as his father’s? “Ha! I told you,” he said, slapping me on the back. “Real people doing real things—that’s what folks want to read!”

  Shortly thereafter he was gone. There was no goodbye, no final bender. He just stopped showing up at the bar. About a month afterward he put a Luger to his head and pulled the trigger, though I didn’t find out about it until much later, when I tried to track down a number or address for him to see what he was up to.

  Assuming my pension from the state will still exist in a few years, I’d like to retire when I’m of age and see if I might begin to write again. I’d like to tell Johnny’s story. I filter through my memories of him on occasion, trying to remember the things he said and to imagine what his life had been like before he decided to end it.

  As it is now, I’ve taken part-time work in special collections at the Wichita State University library. Each day I pass by Women’s Health Care Services on my way home. I remember Will saying that the protesters would go away after the election, but it’s well into the New Year and they are still holding their vigil outside the clinic. Sometimes I park and watch them, wondering if I might catch a glimpse of Will, but I never do. I look at them, these people I’ve long despised as intolerant and ignorant, and I try to imagine my way into their lives. In my mind I follow them home to their spouses and children. I sit down at their dinner tables and listen to their conversations and observe the ways in which they love one another, trying to understand how they believe in what they do, and it seems that if I could successfully do that, then I could also imagine a way in which they would act differently, would think differently, would stop their threats, pack up their vigil, and think of another way they might serve and honor God. But each day when I drive by the clinic they are still there.


  [Stillness, 1952]

  Thirty minutes’ break was what he was allowed for lunch. Twelve forty-five to one fifteen usually, but if there was a lunchtime rush, Mr. Stoughton sometimes asked him to stay on longer. He didn’t mind that, though. Didn’t take but one hundred seconds to eat his sandwich—the army had taught him how to eat without chewing, how to feel sated without tasting—which left a whole heap of time to relax. Sometimes he sat in the back room of the store, among the boxed-up appliances and stacks of white-walled tires, thinking, picking over a weeks-old newspaper. Other times, like today, he went for a walk along Massachusetts Street, looking in storefronts, maybe picking up a cup of coffee to warm his hands. He wasn’t hungry yet and decided he’d eat when he got back from his stroll.

  “Thomas,” Mr. Stoughton called after him as he stepped out onto the sidewalk. He stopped where he was, paused momentarily, and turned. His boss stood in the doorway of the store he’d owned since the interlude between the wars, just a tad over twenty years. Mr. Stoughton had a thin, clean-shaven face, and the last of his graying hair blew wildly from his head now in the breeze. “Your jacket,” he said. “It’s winter.”

  Thomas nodded, said, “Yes, sir,” but only stood there as his black tie suddenly billowed from where it had hung still against the ironed crisp of his white shirt. “It don’t bother me none, sir. I prefer it.”

  “I can’t afford you getting sick on me, son,” Mr. Stoughton said in a harsh tone, but then added, kindly: “Wouldn’t do either of us any good, you laid up at home.”

  Thomas smiled. That was Mr. Stoughton’s way; his hardness could soften so quickly. Thomas considered him a good, fair boss.

  “No, sir. I reckon I just might drive Verna mad, were I that.” So he went inside to the back room and took his blue jacket of thin canvas that suited him well enough even in the harshest of Lawrence’s winters. Mr. Stoughton let one cheek rise as Thomas held it up to show him, then said curtly, “Twenty minutes today, Thomas. Mr. Merton is coming at one to pick up that oven. You’ll need to load it for him.”

  “Yes, sir,” he said, pulling on his coat as he exited the store again. He walked north, in the direction of the river and railroad, the direction he took each evening home. Sometimes at night he stopped on the bridge to regard the languid flow of the Kaw, or paused near the tracks to feel the hot breath of the Santa Fe rushing past. Now he walked a block to the corner of Eighth and Massachusetts, where he took his coat off and slung it over his arm. He liked the cold. It softened the starch of his shirt the same way it softened the starchy way his insides sometimes felt. Out here, on these brief ambles downtown, he remembered himself. He felt stillness. There were places he couldn’t go, but that was okay, since he knew the ones he could. Usually on these walks he’d stop in at Green’s newsstand and look at the bright covers of magazines, scan the black headlines of gray papers for news about Korea.

  Then he’d stroll up to Sixth and cross to the other side of Massachusetts and continue east to New Hampshire, near the Lawrence Journal World offices. He remembered the night, more than ten years ago now, when he had been coming home late on a Sunday in early December. He was eighteen, only just done with schooling, and he’d told his parents he was helping clean up the church after the weekend services. But what he had done instead was walk right past the AME and toward the cul-de-sac where Angela Geeshie lived in a small house with peeling yellow paint and a sunken front porch, a house, he thought, that were it a face would be wrinkled and yawning. It was dark. He went around the side and stood below her bedroom window, following her movements through the thin gauze of her window curtain as she prepared for sleep. She was a beautiful dark form walking around the room under the soft light from a dying bulb until she finally settled in bed with a book. He’d almost done something brave that night in declaring his love, and perhaps he might have summoned the nerve were it not for the sigh of the porch’s warped boards, exhaling under new weight. Mr. Geeshie’s evening pipe. The night was still, and the only sound was the conversation Mr. Geeshie and that yellow house seemed to be having, one of groans and echoes and breath. Thomas waited for him to finish, then hustled in the direction of home, burning in cowardice, when he noticed the crowd gathered around the Journal World’s offices. Negroes and whites, near equally. All standing there in the cold, reading dispatches the staff collected right off the AP wires and posted in the windows about the attack in Hawaii, a place that had barely existed until the moment Thomas heard a white man nearby pronounce it and make it real.

  Now Thomas passed right on by the press and turned left, heading into East Lawrence, a neighborhood of colored folks mostly, some Indians. He stopped into Willy’s for a swallow of hot coffee. He asked after the time, and Willy, in his clean white shirt and dirty white apron, pointed at the cola-clock on the wall. He had thirteen minutes, no need to rush. He sipped his coffee and thought about how that sight stayed with him—Negro and white commiserating on the fate of the country they found themselves living in—all through his years in the war. It had been strange coming home to Lawrence afterward. The Sunflower Ordnance Works, a rocket powder factory outside of town, had flooded Lawrence with men looking for work, and soon followed the taverns and establishments in which they could lose their wages. Was it enough to say the town had grown? Every able-bodied couple, he and Verna included, had a baby. No, simple growth wasn’t enough; it was change, which was more than numbers. It was evident, whether people were talking about it or trying to not talk about it, which is what he was asked to do by the man at Menninger’s the previous week.

  Verna had been on him since last spring about makin
g an appointment.

  “They are the best in the country,” she said, “and only thirty minutes away.”

  “The best at what?” he said.

  “Psychology, dear. Psychiatry.” He looked at her sharp, gave her that lemon-sucking face he did when she put on airs and conversed over his head. “At talking to people who’ve been through what you have. Who’ve seen what you saw.” She told him how Dr. Menninger himself had been made a brigadier general by the army for his work with soldiers during the war. “Someone you can talk to.”

  “We talking fine right now, Vern. I know my letters.”

  He was reluctant, but Verna was a good woman, and her love was true, so when she persisted, as was her way, he finally relented, if only to ease her nag. He didn’t care for driving—it unsettled him—so she took him the twenty-five miles to Topeka, and as they made their way to the clinic they saw the group of colored folks standing on a downtown street corner holding signs. Negroes Acting As Crazy People, he thought, which tickled him. He knew he wasn’t a humorous man, so when it came he had to savor it. When Verna asked what he was so pleased about, he kept it for himself, and neither remarked a word as they drove past the group. The issue came up a short while later, however, when the doctor asked Thomas about his military training in a segregated unit. It took a while for him to feel comfortable speaking to a white man, despite the doctor’s sincere entreaties. Finally he did so, figuring worst case they’d send him home and he’d be done with the whole nuisance.

  The colored units were mostly made up of men from the Deep South or the Northeast, whom the military trained in the Midwest before shipping off to Europe. There was tension in that rural-urban division, and Thomas had felt stuck in between the two, unable to stake a claim in either camp. He was from nowhere, and the others didn’t know what to make of a Negro who wasn’t country and wasn’t city. “We different enough as it is without adding color to it,” Thomas told the doctor. Sure, the black man walked a harder road, but there wasn’t much good done in crowing about it. “That’s why this trouble here in Topeka ain’t about to serve Negroes nothing. I been in a schoolroom with white folk and don’t mean to repeat it.” He’d attended KU for a semester after coming home from the war and suffered the threats and cold silence. Enrollment had exploded, the campus overrun with students, but most often, except for the class in which he’d met Verna, he was the only Negro in the room. More than anything it was the staring that made it impossible to concentrate. He couldn’t focus on the words his professors were saying. He tried to stay inside himself, as he’d always done, but that’s when doing so began to feel like watching a slab of stone slide over the top of your tomb. And so he’d dropped out and went to work at Stoughton’s. The lone consolation of his short time in college had been meeting Verna, who was so serious about her schooling she was able to endure what he could not. “Now we trying to put our kids in that situation?” he said to the doc. “No one’s as good and evil as a child. Black or white.”

  Now Thomas walked through a basement flea market bearing the name of that Missouri guerrilla who’d once burned Lawrence to the ground. He sometimes came here and browsed the strange debris and wares pedaled by vendors. He came upon a man with long silver hair and sunken eyes. He was Indian, but there were no tribal pieces. His booth was made up of varied military supplies and paraphernalia. There were uniforms from the Great War, ceremonial sabers with gold handles, mud-caked Civil War bullets, mint Confederate money, and ornate helmets that had once belonged to soldiers from other countries fighting other wars. On a shelf next to some tarnished medals sat a grenade, the pin still holding the spoon in place. It looked like the Mark II bombs Thomas had hurled in the war. He picked it up.

  “Easy now,” the man said. “Liable to blow us sky high.” He was sitting on a stool, balancing a shoebox on his knees that served as his register. “You fight in it?” Thomas neither shook his head nor nodded. “Me too. Can you believe it?”

  “What?” Thomas said.

  “Us, fighting for them.”

  Thomas continued to examine the grenade, turning it under the light.

  “Flip it over,” the man said. On the bottom of the bomb was a white cap. “Hollowed out.” He was laughing now. “Had you, didn’t I? You could pull that pin and all you’d hear was the heartbeat of the world.”

  The clock on the wall showed it was time to go. He hustled to Stoughton’s and into the backroom. He had two minutes to eat. From his makeshift locker—really just an old metal nail tin—he took out the sandwich Verna had made him that morning: bologna on white, mustard on the bottom slice only. He sat on a stack of three used tires Mr. Stoughton bought on the cheap and sometimes resold to poorer customers. He braced the sandwich on his leg and removed the grenade from his pocket. He set it on the ground between his feet and stared at it as he unwrapped his lunch from the waxed paper and ate quickly.

  When Mr. Stoughton appeared, popping his head through the black curtain, Thomas had both hands on the crust and there was no time to pick up the grenade. Mr. Stoughton asked if he was ready. Mr. Merton had arrived to pick up his oven. “Yes, sir,” Thomas said, chewing furiously. Mr. Stoughton started to turn back, but stopped, having caught sight of the object at his feet.

  “What is that, Thomas? Is that—?”

  “Ain’t nothing,” he said, swallowing the last bite and picking up the weapon.

  “My God, what are you—”

  “Ain’t nothing to worry about.” He turned the grenade upside down to show Stoughton there was no danger.

  “Is this some kind of joke? Do you think this stunt is funny? What would customers think if they saw it?” Thomas said nothing. “This is a fireable offense,” Mr. Stoughton whispered so no one out front would hear. Thomas dropped his head. They were silent a few moments, then Mr. Stoughton said, “What are you going to do with it?”

  “Don’t know.” Thomas shook his head. There were all these things, hard to feel and hard to name, swirling inside him, and he didn’t know why, let alone what one was ever expected to do with them.

  Mr. Stoughton had little sense of what to make of it all, his Negro employee and his grenade. He stepped fully into the back room, letting the curtain fall behind him.

  “Are you okay, Thomas?”

  He looked up and smiled. “Yes, sir. Thank you.”

  “Take a minute to get yourself together, then meet me out front. We’ve got work to do.” He took Thomas in for a long second before turning to leave.

  Mr. Stoughton walked to the register where Merton waited. He began filling out the bill of sale but was still thinking of Thomas. What was it about the Negro that unsettled him so? He’d had few workers better and more dependable. Did as told. Never complained, never said boo. But the young man vexed him. His quiet, his stillness. So unsettlingly self-contained. He considered firing him, but decided against it; he was a good worker with a new family—a young girl, plus a baby on the way—and he’d fought in the war. Served his country. Whatever went on inside his head, however, Stoughton didn’t want a glimpse, for it was either everything or nothing, and neither seemed innocuous. This was what he was thinking about later that evening as he shut his eyes and lowered his head over knotted fingers. He was trying to pray to God but could think only of the confounding blackness inside his young employee’s head. Don’t worry it any longer, he told himself, and then looked up at his wife and smiled. “Dinner looks lovely, dear. Thank you.”

  [The Men, 1968]

  That May, we met in the Lawrence High School cafeteria to voice our demands—black teachers, black counselors, black history, black cheerleaders, black homecoming queen, more representation—to the school administration. We presented it to them calmly and plainly, no flash, no high talk. My brother Brian couldn’t be bothered, but Mother came with me and we sat next to Rodney and his father. Principal Medley listened and nodded, and when he spoke he said that as a red-headed man he too knew what it was like to feel oppressed. “Few realize the burde
ns of being different,” he said. We left the meeting with assurances that steps would be taken. But when we came back to school the following September we found nothing but a couple books on Negro history in the library.

  I forget whether it was Mike or Rodney who came up with the idea for the walkout, but by then all of us were a little under the spell of Honeyboy, who’d appeared in Lawrence the previous year in braids and black leather, and it very well might have been at his urging. Honeyboy was not colored, not Negro, not even black. Honeyboy was Black. Regardless, if it wasn’t his idea, he’d at least given us the okay. We didn’t tell anyone, not even our parents. That following morning we met in the library—thirty-seven of us—and marched through the hallways, gathering numbers along the way. The sea of white faces parted, some scared, some amused. “Looks like they’ve opened a fried chicken stand in the cafeteria,” someone called out. “Hide your women and your watermelon,” cried another. We said nothing, just turned down the main corridor, and that’s when I saw Brian. He was standing by his locker, talking to a couple of white boys. Bearded freaks in bandanas and beads. I ran ahead of the group and pulled his arm to come on.

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