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I was a revolutionary, p.20

I Was a Revolutionary, page 20


I Was a Revolutionary

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  Good luck to you, Mr. Bronstein, and, again, thank you for your well wishes. I shall pass them on to Edward.





  Dear Mr. Bronstein,

  I suppose I have always known where your questions would lead sooner or later, but perhaps I’ve wishfully hoped otherwise. You must understand, it’s not a memory I court.

  Pearl and I passed most afternoons in a variety of manner, but our favorite pastimes, aside from our frequent and interminable walks, were watching silent pictures and motoring in her new automobile. The picture house wasn’t much of a house at all. It was a roofless area of picnic tables with an accompanying piano in the corner. Most pitiful to think of today, but how we enjoyed it then! Pearl and I would pay our five cents and see the same picture seven times over. That day, I still recall, it was a jungle picture of some sort, silliest thing we’d ever seen. White men dressed-up colored, carrying spears and fighting animals. “Hard to tell one from the other,” I remember Pearl whispering to me, and our laughter was shushed. Afterward, we went for a drive.

  The Waylands were one of the few families in town who had an automobile at the time and Pearl liked to drive the ten miles to Pittsburg, where we would shop and spend the afternoon. She had little tolerance for the “inchworms” still in their carriages, and Pearl took the Ford to top speed out on the dirt-dust roads that surrounded Girard. We were gone no longer than an hour before returning home. So, yes, I did drive with her that day, but here I must correct Fred. I was not in the car with Pearl when it happened. She was alone. For all the speed she craved, what an accident of chance, a cruel irony, to be thrown from the car as it circled her own home. I was devastated and you don’t need to speculate long to venture a guess as to J.A.’s feelings. This was 1911, in less than a year he would be dead.

  It was a bad time all around for J.A. The Appeal was indicted by the government for obscenity. Additionally, there was some intimation in private conversations that he was not well. That final year, however, he gave up his monthly visits to his properties in Texas to collect rents and poured himself into Debs’s campaign like a man but half his age. For the first time in years he went on the speaking circuit, stumping for Gene. It was the one aspect to find hopefulness about, I suppose. He’d long since turned over most control at the paper to Fred, but he even began writing paragraphs again. That’s what I would find him doing most nights in his office: slumped over his desk, spectacles sliding down his nose, grimacing at the paper before him as he worked over his words.

  After Pearl’s death, I’d taken to stopping by most evenings, for my sake as much as his. If he was out of town at a rally, I sat with one of his daughters, playing cards. If he was home, I often brought supper and we would sit a long time, talking or not talking, as the mood suited us. Our heartsick was mutual. It is difficult to explain, except that I needed to be in that house. It wasn’t proper behavior, I’ll grant, but such behavior can the aggrieved’s heart effect. Edward, bless his heart, didn’t like it and one evening said so. It was, hand on the Bible, the only time I have disrespected my husband. I mean that. I was furious and let him know so—shameful to think of my insolence now—but how could I expect him to understand? How can we ever understand the sadness of others? And yet I think I was close to knowing J.A.’s.

  I remember the night of the election. J.A. had a party at the paper’s offices—everyone was welcome. Edward said he didn’t care to participate in fueling the fantasies of so deluded a spectacle. (He voted Bull Moose that year—even he couldn’t support Taft! I do not keep secrets from my husband, mind you, but I must admit that had I been allowed to I would have made my mark next to Gene’s name.) “Wilson has it, I’m sure,” he said, folding closed the newspaper. “Even if that socialist were to win, I’d still have to get up and work in the morning. Nothing can change that.” I told him I wasn’t yet tired and took up the paper. When I heard the bedroom door shut, I slipped out. I just intended to say hello and be on my way, but it was quite a scene to behold. Everyone had gathered with their families and was eating—the office seemed fit to explode. There was a mood of merriment that I realized was buoyed not by hope but belief. Edward was right; they truly had believed they could vote socialism into office, but even with a million votes Gene had placed no better than a distant fourth. When the final announcement of Wilson’s victory came across the wire, a silence took hold of the room. A few of the women, myself among them, began picking up plates. Pipes were lit, cups sipped, heads downcast at the floor, shaking. And then J.A. said, “We made great strides this year. Socialism may be inevitable, but it won’t come easy. We must work harder! We’ll get them in ’16.” For the first time I imagined what it must have been like to see him on the stump before a crowd—the fierce power of a quiet man moved to passion. And with that, the room started cheering. I continued to clean as people left to return home. I thought perhaps J.A. might want to chat, as had become our custom, but he just turned away, telling me to thank Edward for letting him steal my services for the evening. He hadn’t meant this unkindly, I believe, smiling sadly as he spoke the words, but how it hurt. I could see how disappointed he was by the evening’s outcome and yet it was only a mask of the true sadness he felt. There was little one could do to ameliorate that burden, so I returned home and stayed there for two days.

  On the third day, November 10th, business required that Edward spend a few hours at the office, though it was a Sunday. He was always working too hard. I protested, but he took a certain pride in his effort. In any case, I ventured over to J.A.’s with some extra helpings I’d made for supper. His housekeeper had already prepared his meal and gave me a cold eye at the door. But then I heard J.A.’s voice call out from his study, asking who it was, and I answered him as I stepped past her.

  When I entered the study, I found him in his usual spot behind his desk. He was playing solitaire and looked up, smiling beneath his push-broom mustache. His mood had improved and we spoke for a long time. Out of respect for the dead I’d rather keep the conversation as it was then: private. I’ll say this, however. It was pleasant. So pleasant, in fact, that I lost track of time. Before I knew it, three hours had passed. I thought of Edward returning home from the office. In my haste, I’d plumb forgot to leave him a note. When I said I must leave, he looked surprised and asked me to stay for a final cup of tea. I explained about my error with the note. “He’ll have the sheriff searching every county in Kansas for his dense wife,” I said. Again J.A. asked if I wouldn’t stay a little longer. I turned to look at the grandfather clock in the corner and as I did so—this I recall vividly—he placed his hand on mine. It startled me and I retracted my hand. We stared at each other. He took off his glasses. How can I explain that one small act such as removing a pair of glasses conveyed more clearly his anguish than had he collapsed into tears right before me if you never knew the man? He apologized. I said not to—he’d only surprised me—but he shook his head and said two or three more times that he was sorry. I thought of the late hour. Now we were simply staring at each other and both moved to speak at the same time. He relented, allowing my voice to take priority—an inane attempt at humor to lighten the mood. “We’ll continue this discussion tomorrow?” he asked. He put on his glasses and walked me to the door. “Of course,” I said. I looked back once as I hurried home, but J.A. was no longer in the doorway.

  That was the night. He’d been unconscious for some time before the housekeeper found him upstairs on the floor of his bedroom. She hadn’t heard the noise because he’d wrapped the gun in bed sheets. To recount it now still vexes my mood. They were such dear friends. While it’s fitting they were unable to continue on without each other, their deaths, far too soon, were difficult to endure.

  Ah, well. I’ve said enough. Good luck to you, Mr. Bronstein, as you work to complete what has undoubtedly been a long journey for you. I much look forward to reading your book.

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  Dear Mr. Bronstein,

  For weeks since your package arrived I have wondered how to respond. It has been a trying time since we last corresponded. Edward’s health worsened unexpectedly, I’m sad to relate. He passed in January. I say this now because over the course of the past year I had come to think of you as something of a friend, or, at the very least, as a kindly presence in my life despite the fact that we’d never met. I have always tried to be honest with you in my recollections, and I wish you had returned the favor in kind.

  To say the least, your “biography” is not what I expected. I was greatly disappointed to see the manner in which you conveyed Mr. Wayland’s life and history, perhaps only because it was a history that I, for a short time, shared. Your accompanying note needn’t have spelled out for me what is obvious to anyone from the first page. You say that our current economic situation “lays bare the inherent contradictions of capitalism and thus the inevitability of socialism” and I care little to quibble with you. I am not one for political arguments. But to turn J.A. into a martyr—a man dead twenty years, whose name is as familiar now as James Baird Weaver’s—for the purposes of furthering your politics seems misguided, and not a little dishonest. You see opportunity in our shared misfortune, but what gives you the right to shape a man’s life in any manner you see fit?

  At times, paging through your book, I felt as though you’d never read my letters. Pearl merits a few paragraphs in three hundred pages? And what of the other women who worked at the Appeal? J.A. a paragon of socialist virtue? The truth of the matter is, J.A. was the best capitalist socialism ever produced. He may have said otherwise, but if you had spent time in his home you might question his commitment to overthrow a system in which he had so prospered. You place his death at the doorstep of Gene’s defeat in ’12. Perhaps. But had you looked into a man’s eyes and seen his heart empty right before you, as I did that night he touched my hand and removed his glasses, you would know it was love, not politics, that killed him, no matter what his note said. He wasn’t a victim of capitalism; he was a victim of grief, of love.

  What is to be done to rectify this matter, Mr. Bronstein? I must say that for a time I considered legal recourse, but it is done and I am tired. You have used the past for the ends your present requires. The last year has been difficult and with Edward gone I wish only to weather the welter of our current troubles, so that we might come out intact on the other end. I ask only that you remove my name from your acknowledgments in any future printings. You used little of my input, and in any case I would prefer no association with your work.

  Despite my objections, I wish you good luck. With Jewsevelt in office, you just might get your wish.


  Mrs. Edward Shaw


  On the first day I tell them:

  “When searching for the Seven Cities of Cibola, Coronado was so disappointed by what he found in the land that would one day become Kansas that he strangled the guide who’d brought him here and turned around.”

  No one laughs. Their blank stares communicate only this: It’s the first day of class. Don’t get cute. Hand out the syllabus and we’ll see you on Tuesday. I ask them to find a partner, thinking I’ll have them introduce one another to the group, but cave when I see their eyes roll, hear the groans from the back of the room. “Actually, let’s start from here next time,” I say, and pass out the syllabus. A modicum of relief enters the classroom as they pack their bags and leave, suctioned from their desks to the door as if by pneumatic tubing.

  Afterward I head to the office I share with an emeritus professor who rarely comes around. I check e-mail and find my wife has written. We used to speak openly and directly. Now we e-mail, and hers arrive with all the formality of a communiqué. Paul, I would like to get some more of my things this evening. Please leave the house from 7–8. —Linda. Strange to think of her across campus, over in Sociology, composing this terse missive. Stranger still to think that when the divorce papers arrive, we could, if so inclined, settle the whole matter via intracampus mail.

  I’m debating whether to reply when Brad, the chair of the History Department, pops in to say hello.

  “Welcome back, partner. How was break?”

  “Cold,” I say.

  He laughs and asks if my eleven thirty went okay.

  Brad toes a fine line between administrator and concerned colleague, a fact that seems to color any conversation I have with him. I shouldn’t complain; he’s always been pretty good to me. When the university hired Linda, almost twenty-five years ago, he took me on as an instructor. I was all-but-dissertation with a focus on the post–Civil War period in the South, but those first several years I taught whatever they could scrounge up for me: general history surveys, even the occasional comp class. Brad had pushed me to teach a class on Kansas history, wanting me to be the department’s “Kansas guy.” And so I put aside my dissertation, telling Linda it was temporary, and educated myself as quickly as I could about a state I’d never given much thought. I understood, of course, that he hired me because the university wanted Linda, and, further, that without the dissertation I would never earn tenure. Even so, I’ve never forgotten his kindness.

  “Are you going to watch the inauguration?” he says now. “Ever think you’d actually see this back in the sixties?”

  “I teach Tuesday,” I say, and turn back to my computer screen. I can feel him lingering there, the heavy breathing of a big man. “Well, I should let you get back to work,” he says. “Say hello to Linda for me.”

  That night I walk downtown along Massachusetts Street while Linda loots our home. Lawrence is freezing, and everyone is inside watching the basketball game. I like having the streets to myself. Most of the stores have closed, but occasionally I stop to look in a window before I head to Louise’s for a schooner of Boulevard Wheat. Surrounded by folks fixated on the game, I wonder how many still remember that our innocuously smiling mascot, an imaginary blue bird, got its name from the militant abolitionists, the Jayhawkers, who fought bloodily to make Kansas a free state. During a time-out the mascot runs around the court, entreating the crowd to clap to the beat of the band’s brassy pomp. I watch the game clock, imagining Linda moving quietly through our house alone, taking things. When the game ends, I pay my tab and walk home in the cold January night.

  By the time I arrive, she’s gone. She left the day after New Year’s, informing me when she came downstairs with matching blue luggage as I dozed through the final minutes of a bowl game blowout. She said if she didn’t do it that second, she’d lose her nerve, and before I could even rise she was turning the doorknob. She says it’s too difficult to see me, that we need some time apart to get used to the separation. So far I have respected her wishes, resisting the fleeting temptation to stop by her office unannounced, or, in my lowest moments, to sneak over and watch her teach from the hallway. I haven’t made much of a fuss because I realized soon after she walked out the door that it was the right thing. Despite this, the last time I called her I made a halfhearted attempt to reconcile. When she resisted, I pressed her. “I’m not going to lie in bed next to someone who doesn’t love me anymore,” she said. “The amazing thing is that you could. You could do that, Paul, and you’d never say a word.” I was hurt and started to yell, but Linda cut me off—“This is why I don’t want to talk”—and hung up. And though I know she’s right—we haven’t been in love for a long time—it’s hard to watch her undo a life together we spent nearly forty years creating. It’s awful, these nights she asks me to leave the house. Her incremental disappearance from my world. Each time I return home and walk slowly from room to room, opening drawers and closets, trying to find what she’s taken, trying to sense what she’s touched.

  We talk Louisiana Purchase and Kansas Territory. We talk about Andrew Jackson and Indian Removal. We talk about the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, which left the
question of whether Kansas would be a free state or slave state to be decided by its inhabitants. We talk about the New England Immigrant Aid Society shipping abolitionist and profit-seeking easterners to Kansas—how they settled in and established this town, named after their founder Amos Adams Lawrence. We cover Kansas becoming the thirty-fourth star on the flag. We talk Border War and Bleeding Kansas. John Brown and Jim Lane, Quantrill and George Todd. Do they know Quantrill led a raid on Lawrence in 1863, that he and his men rode right down Massachusetts Street and murdered some hundred and fifty unarmed men and boys? Some do. We unpack terms like Jayhawker and border ruffian. We learn about Clarina Nichols and the failed attempts to gain voting rights for women and blacks. We talk broken treaties, Indian resettlement, and the Dog Soldiers who fought back against white aggression.

  Through the first few weeks, the class is slow to come together. They yawn and rub their eyes, nurse their hangovers. They text-message and I pretend not to notice, but it eats at me. It’s tough to fail at the one thing you believe you do well, the thing you’ve come to depend upon. I want them to be as fascinated by the history as I was all those years ago in the library when I should have been doing research for my dissertation on the limits of Radical Reconstruction of the South but was unable to pull my nose out of a volume on Kansas. But they seem largely uninterested. Finally, I ask, “Why did you take this class?” My tone betrays my frustration, and they look alarmed, sitting up a little. There are mutterings of “For my major.” No one says it, but I’m afraid a reputation as an easy grader has preceded me. Then a girl in row two says, “Because I’m from here.” Truth be told, my memory is poor and I still haven’t learned names, but she has stood out as one of the few willing contributors and attentive listeners. “That’s a good reason to care,” I say. “The history of one’s home matters. We should understand where we come from, the legacies we inherit.” The thing they need to understand, I tell them, is that the history of a state, like anything, is a history of change. What makes Kansas interesting is that here these changes tend toward social and political extremes. I soapbox like this for another minute, ending emphatically with: “Kansas is and always was a radical state!” I’m staring hard, half expecting the class to rise slowly from their chairs one by one and slow-clap my Stand and Deliver moment. But of course they just sit there. There is some nodding of heads, a few grins and smiles at the old prof getting animated. I tell them they can leave early.

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