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I was a revolutionary, p.12

I Was a Revolutionary, page 12

 

I Was a Revolutionary
 


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  “That’s some racist shit,” I say in a voice not my own.

  Blondie is caught off guard, scoots her chair back. She is about to apologize when John Brown’s gaunt, woodeny face says, “We’re antiracist.”

  “Show me,” I say.

  “Show you?” says Brown.

  “Show me how antiracist you are,” I say. “Kiss my black feet.”

  To my amazement they actually do so. They lower their weary white bodies to the floor, their heads hovering over my sandals like I’m Jesus Himself, and we can’t hold it in any longer. We crack up, our eyes fill with tears. We shoot ropes of snot from our noses. We fall out of chairs. We haven’t laughed like this in at least half an hour.

  “Fucking cunts,” says Blondie.

  “Fucking dicks,” adds Brown. As they leave the kitchen, she stops and says, “Deliver the guns tomorrow, or sky high, I’ll do it. I’ll send this place to the fucking moon.”

  In the morning—perhaps we’ve woken, or maybe the sun has only come up—they’re gone. We snoop through the cache: two rifles, a bunch of handguns, a few grenades. In case the cops pull the truck over, we decide it’s best if not everyone goes. Can’t risk the whole Farm getting busted. Rutabaga twirls in circles—a light-blue flash of clacking beads and chains—chanting his gibberish, and then stops on a dime and says he’s in. His mantra this morning is: “I’ll go.” Scare Baby says we need someone else. He looks at Mr. B, and Mr. B looks at Wishy, who is pregnant and splayed out on the couch.

  “Maybe you should go, Bug,” says Mr. B.

  Scare Baby agrees: “The Panthers’ll deal easier with you.”

  “Just don’t tell them to kiss your feet,” says Wishy, trying to joke, but no one laughs. She is wearing only a dish towel that she’s fashioned into a loincloth. Her long blond hair falls past her nipples. I tell her to shut up and put on something besides a diaper. I’m edgy and short-tempered because I haven’t yet taken anything this morning.

  “Hey,” says Mr. B, resting a hand on my chest. “She has a pretty face. Her diaper is lovely.”

  So then it’s me and Rutabaga in the red truck, driving into town. The package is in the flat bed, tied up in a blanket and covered by a heavy tarp weighted down by rocks. I watch my speed, check the rearview, and Rutabaga speaks words I do not understand. We don’t know much about him. He showed up at the Farm a few months ago, saying he’d just come from India. He’d studied with the maharishi and now his name was Rudra Veda. He asked if he could be our guru. Sure, Rutabaga, we said. We could use a guru.

  We turn onto Mass Street, driving slowly past South Park, where there’s some sort of demonstration going on. A hundred years ago, this was the street Quantrill’s guerrillas rode up and down, looting stores and killing townsfolk in the name of the Confederacy. The shit you remember from school, even when you’ve dropped out.

  I pull the truck over in front of Strawberry Fields. Rutabaga doesn’t ask why, just gets out like it’s a planned stop. It’s already hot and I think that maybe after we make the drop we can swing by the pool to cool off. A church bell tolls, its sound hanging long and lonesome in the summer air. We go inside and I buy some papers and a one-hitter to give to Wishy when we return, a peace offering. Rutabaga stares at a case of crystals for a while, mumbling to himself, before picking up a necklace that has a many-armed figure hanging from the end. He holds the idol close to his face, and then he puts the necklace around his neck and leaves the store. “We’ll take that too,” I say to the girl at the counter.

  Outside, the bells still ring. They unsettle me and I wish I’d gotten high before leaving. I’m itchy, aching, already feeling hollow in my bones. I roll a cigarette and a police car creeps by. Rutabaga waves and I tell him to knock it off. “The fuck is going on with these bells?” I say. “It’s not even Sunday, is it?”

  “It’s okay,” Rutabaga says. “I hear them too.”

  I tell him let’s get this over with.

  When we get to Afro House, there are several guys in full Panther dress standing watch on the porch. It’s all black denim and berets over there. One approaches the truck and I tell him we have the package. He looks at Rutabaga, then at me, takes the toothpick from his mouth, and tells us to pull around the side of the house. Before we’ve even gotten out of the car, two others have thrown back the tarps and taken the package through a back door. We follow them, but there’s a big cat standing guard at the door. “We haven’t been paid yet,” I say. He says I can come in but Rutabaga can’t. “He’s cool,” I say. “He’s not white anymore. He’s Indian.” He pauses a moment to remove his beret and wipe away sweat before leading us inside and down a flight of stairs to the basement. It’s a cellar they’ve fashioned into a war room. There is a map of Lawrence with certain areas highlighted and marked beneath the black stencil: Fight Pig Amerika. Pictures of Che, Ho, and Malcolm—the gang’s all here—on the wall, and maybe two dozen Most Wanted posters bearing the face of the cop who shot Rodney. Wanted for Murder, they say. Ten Pigs for Our Brother. Another shows Rodney’s face above the words: He Was Ready—Are You? Seven or eight Panthers follow us in and take seats on the ratty couches to our left and right. Before us stands Honeyboy. The package lies on the floor before him and he squats to inspect it, then looks at us a long moment.

  “The fuck you doing here, peckerwood faggot?” he says.

  “It’s okay,” I say. “He’s with me.”

  “I wasn’t talking about him.” He stands and moves close to me, leans in an inch away from my face. “Look at you in your sandals and beads.” He slowly circles around me. “You worse than Uncle Tom. Ain’t never seen anything as backwards as a hippie nigga.”

  “I’m not the one wearing sunglasses in a dark basement.”

  He pushes me. “Motherfucker, I will end you.”

  “Stop!” a voice from behind calls. Though I haven’t seen her in over a year, of course I recognize it.

  “He my brother.”

  Petal enters the cellar and won’t make eye contact with me. She’s looking at Honeyboy, who seems to think she’s joking, but then it clicks and he stares at me hard. “Shit, I remember you.” He waves over his shoulder to a fat man with a cigar box by his foot. “Pay these goofy-looking motherfuckers.”

  “Let there be commerce between us,” smiles Rutabaga, the tips of his fingers touching, forming a tent on his chest.

  “Show these hippie capitalists the door.”

  Petal follows us outside. She looks just as absurd as the others. I ask if she’s got a minute. She glances back at her comrades in the doorway and nods at them. “A minute,” she says. I tell Rutabaga to scoot over so the three of us can fit in the cab of the truck and Petal tells him that’s not going to work and points to the truck bed. He complies without comment, hopping in and scooting to the side. We are silent as I drive, and I watch Rutabaga studying the god on his necklace out back. The last time I saw Petal was right before I dropped out of LHS and moved to the Farm. It was the last time I saw Mother as well. The three of us had gone to see Daddy in Topeka. Petal and Mother argued the entire time about the war, about politics, about school, and by the time we got to the sanitarium they were no longer speaking to each other. They brought Daddy out to the foyer and we took seats around him on a couch. Mom visited him every week, Petal and I less frequently, but this was how it always was. The three of us sitting around him, wondering if he’ll ever say anything again. He just sat there, rubbing his hand over his leg as Mom gave him the week’s news. She told him how after two years the city had finally built the swimming pool just in time for the summer heat. “Petal and Brian are going to the opening, aren’t you all?” she said. I looked at Petal and she was slumping in her chair, shaking her head. It was hard trying to talk to someone who never answered. I said, yeah, we sure were.

  I park the car on Eighth and tell Rutabaga to wait there. Petal and I walk quietly a minute and there’s just the sound of the bells ringing. I tell her I’m gonna go crazy if they don’t sto
p.

  “They ringing it forty-four thousand times for the war dead.”

  “Good thing I live in the country now.”

  “Of course they only counting they own dead. Ain’t enough bells in town to ring for all the Vietnamese.”

  When we get to Mass Street, I tell her I’m sorry about Rodney.

  “After his funeral,” she says, “we marched from the church to the cemetery, right up Mass. Had his casket on a hearse pulled by a couple ponies. Crackers on the sidewalks and in store windows just staring. You could feel how scared they was. That’s when I knew we were gonna win.”

  We have stopped in front of Stoughton’s. She asks if I remember this place. One time when I was little, before he fully cracked, Daddy brought me here to meet his old boss. I don’t remember Stoughton’s face, but I can hear his voice. “This is your youngest?” he’d said. “Yes, sir,” Daddy answered. “This Brian, my leastest.” My leastest. Where had he gotten that? The kind of expression Mother probably tried to coach out of him. It’s one of the few things I remember him ever saying. He and Stoughton spoke a minute more—about what I don’t remember—and then we left and continued down Mass Street.

  The store is empty now. CLOSED INDEFINITELY, a sign says. Petal cranes her neck to see the roof, where the brick is scorched, the upper-floor windows blown out.

  “That night, after we put Rodney in the ground, I threw the Molotov right through that window. I hoped he was in there.”

  “Who?”

  She says nothing. We were never particularly close, but we’ve never felt as far apart as we do now. There is a moment where we meet eyes and she puts a hand to my face and it seems like she might say something important, but when she finally does speak, she says only, “Good work on that package,” and pauses a moment. “Now forget you ever saw it or me and whoever gave it to you. Get the fuck out of here and keep your head down.” She turns and leaves and I’m standing in front of Stoughton’s appliance store, where my father once worked, and still the bells toll.

  A DEFENSE OF HISTORY

  As instructed, the Assistant arrives at the campus library early on Friday. This despite not being what one would call a morning person. He needs coffee ASAP, which makes his location convenient. Among undergrads, the library is more commonly and aptly referred to as “the place where Starbucks is.” He shivers in November’s autumnal chill as he waits for the Historian, a professor in the department where he is pursuing his Ph.D., the one who has beckoned him here at this early hour, the attractive older woman upon whom he has the most innocuous of crushes and whom he hopes will guide his own studies when he’s ready to dissertate in a couple of years. Still finishing his coursework, the Assistant was appointed to help her with research this semester, a post that until now has mostly entailed tracking down a few articles for her book project on the People’s Party.

  “Populists,” she said when they met in her office back in early September to discuss her research. “Radical agrarians. You’re familiar?”

  The Assistant learned quickly that in this environment there is nothing worse than showing intellectual uncertainty, and nodded with a confidence that wouldn’t, on pain of death, betray the fact that he had no idea what she was talking about. Afterward, waiting in the interminable line at the bookstore to purchase texts for his classes, he took out his smartphone.

  Populist Party (United States)

  The People’s Party, later erroneously also known as the Populist Party (derived from “Populist” which is the adjective which describes the members of this party) was a short-lived political party in the United States in the late 19th century. It flourished particularly among western farmers, based largely on its opposition to the gold standard. The party did not remain a lasting feature most probably because it had been so closely identified with the free silver movement which did not resonate with urban voters and ceased to become a major issue as the U.S. came out of the recession of the 1890s. The very term “populist” has since become a generic term in the U.S. for politics which appeals to the common in opposition to established interests.

  —WIKIPEDIA ENTRY, 2010

  The research has been interesting and his duties minimal, but yesterday he received an e-mail from the Historian asking if he was going to be around this weekend and whether he might be able to help with her research at the library. There was urgency in her tone, a faint allusion to an imminent deadline of sorts. He’d planned to drive the two hours home to spend a long weekend with his parents. His mother is sick and has been undergoing treatment throughout the summer and fall, something he’s avoided facing since school started up, and the Historian’s request gave his continued avoidance an air of legitimacy. “Of course we understand your school obligations,” his dad said, clearly bummed, when the Assistant called to cancel. “I’ll give Mom your love.”

  When the Historian arrives, they enter the building through the slow-sliding automatic doors, purchase coffees, and take the elevator to the fifth floor, where they find an empty conference room. The Historian is slim and fit, an obsessive user of a personal home Elliptical, the Assistant would wager. Her hair is red, cut short, textured, and styled messy, and her face has an angularity that gives her a hint of masculinity that makes her seem both sexy and fierce. If she made a pop album, it would be called Sexy/Fierce. Instead of a backpack or briefcase, she tows behind her a roller bag too large for overhead stowage in an airplane. It makes her seem older than she is—mid-forties, he’d guess, but clearly passes for late thirties. He helps her lift her luggage onto the large, rectangular table. “This is my war room for the weekend,” she says, unzipping the bag to reveal stacks of yellow legal pads tattooed with blue ink, as well as books from her home and office.

  Properly caffeinated, the Historian lays out the game plane. Her book proposal on the Populists is due on Monday. She has three days to figure out her angle on these radical farmers and work up a pitch. She wants him to focus on primary sources today, to see if he can’t find something interesting, something she’s overlooked. “Take notes on anything that seems relevant,” she says, tossing him a clean legal pad. Relevant to what? he wonders. He takes it and puts it in his messenger bag. “Transcribe, make photocopies if necessary.” He stares at her, faintly nodding, waiting for more direction. He’s unsure where to begin, but too embarrassed to say he’s unsure where to begin. “This is good training for your own research,” she tells him, ushering him out of the room with a powerful little nod toward the door. “I’ll be in here if you need me.” As he makes his way down the hall, he hears the Historian call out, “Thank you!”

  The time has come when it is necessary in our own defense that the working people of this country, the farmers, mechanics, day laborers and all men and women who earn their living by hands or brains, organize against usurpation. . . . This is not a movement against the merchant, the lawyer, the beggar or anyone else, but a great uprising of the people. They say we want to destroy capital. But we want to restore the supremacy of the people, and we propose to do it.

  —WILLIAM PEFFER, POPULIST SENATOR, KANSAS, 1891

  Equal rights for all and special privileges to none.

  —SLOGAN OF THE PEOPLE’S PARTY, 1891

  It’s been a little while since he’s considered the matter, so the Assistant recounts what he knows. In the decades after the Civil War, farmers were crippled by agricultural debt, and by the 1880s the country was deep in recession. They organized alliances in the South and Midwest to press for economic relief and governmental reform, but the Democrats and Republicans did little to alleviate the situation of the farmers. The grassroots push for an independent third party that would do something grew rapidly, spurring the formation of state parties that won major electoral victories in 1891, as in Kansas, and within a year the national People’s Party was founded. The Assistant wonders how he’d never heard of the Populists before. His entire life spent in the state and it took coming here to Manhattan, Kansas, to the state’s agricultural colleg
e, to find out about them. How does that happen?

  I am the innocent victim of a bloodless revolution—a sort of turnip crusade, as it were.

  —JOHN JAMES INGALLS, REPUBLICAN SENATOR, KANSAS, UPON HIS DEFEAT BY POPULIST WILLIAM PEFFER, 1891

  And I say now to you as my final admonition, not knowing that I shall meet you again, raise less corn and wheat, and more hell.

  —MARY LEASE, KANSAS POPULIST,

  ADDRESSING A GATHERING OF FARMERS, 1891

  For nearly five decades the Assistant’s grandfather, who considered himself an Eisenhower Republican, was a farmer in western Kansas. He died when the Assistant was young, but from what he remembers he could never imagine his grandfather raising less wheat and more hell. The Assistant feels drowsy, could use a little break, so he picks up another coffee, exits the library, and calls home to see how his mother is doing. She’s in partial remission and there’s constant fear and likelihood of recurrence. Throughout the awful summer, he’d driven her to appointments and sat in waiting rooms and worried, while at home he’d read to her from her favorite chapters in the Bible. All the while she grew frailer and frailer but her optimism and fortitude didn’t diminish the way the Assistant’s had. That was what was tough to face: her equanimity in the face of it all. It was either denial or acceptance, and both were unsettling because they led to the same end.

  The Assistant’s father answers the phone and tells him that Mom is resting, so the Assistant asks about Grandpa, the farmer. “Dad was a man full of contradictions,” says the Assistant’s father. “He hated farming but did it anyway. He lobbied for and relied upon government subsidies that kept his farm afloat, and then voted a straight Republican ticket each election.” The Assistant asks if he’s ever heard of the People’s Party. “The what?” his father answers. “Is that some new commie outfit on campus?” The Assistant tells him he needs to get back to work.

  It’s only right that the Conference come at the call of Kansans, for on her plains was shed the first blood in the struggle that freed six million slaves, and on her soil was fought the first battle which is to free sixty-three million industrial slaves.

 
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