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I was a revolutionary, p.8

I Was a Revolutionary, page 8

 

I Was a Revolutionary
 


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  CK thought of the handbill. So he hadn’t been alone in this pursuit. “Wish we’d caught on with them. Didn’t leave till March.” He recounted the story for Talmen, of the arduous trek, of the waiting and the hunger, of the relief he’d felt earlier at having finally reached Nicodemus, and of how quickly it turned to disappointment and rage. When they had arrived, he and Mil approached the first house—the only house—they saw, whose bright fireplace seemed to bode well. “They was even hymning beautiful songs at the piano,” CK said, “and I thought, being Sunday, how rightly to hear our Lord’s name praised first thing.” He’d knocked, asking that they might come in for some food and medicine for Rachel. Baldwin seemed pleasant enough, he said, but the kindness in his eyes disappeared when he found out CK and Mil were part of the exodus.

  “Turned away by one of our own,” CK said. “After what we been through?” He shook his head. “That broke me open with wrath I never felt before.”

  “You hit him first?”

  “I did. I lost myself for a time, and when I seen what I done—”

  “That’s why you stopped when you had him licked?”

  CK nodded. They were quiet for a minute before he finally said, “I’m a wicked man. This journey weren’t meant for no child. If she don’t make it . . .”

  “You hard on yourself,” Talmen said, still standing in the water. He looked over at Isaiah’s grave, near invisible in the dark, thinking he might confide some of the hard things he still felt but thought better of it. There would be time for talking. Now he reckoned they better get back to the dugout to hear what Dr. Newth had to say. Talmen put his boots back on and the two men walked quietly. People weren’t likely to take to this young man’s family for a while, least of all Baldwin, Talmen knew, and he decided he’d let him work the harvest until he got set up on a claim of his own. He thought this was a kindness he could muster, but the idea soured as he looked out at the smoke from a distant dugout. He remembered the numbers the newspapers had quoted, thinking originally they were an exaggeration to scare white folks, but now he wasn’t so sure. What if they were right? What if there were thousands of exodusters?

  “How many you reckon come north with you?” he said.

  “Us?” said CK. “Ain’t figures for that kind of number.”

  “Where they at?”

  “All over Kansas. Some went back south.”

  All over Kansas, Talmen thought. Maybe they could care for a family or two, but what would they do if that many people came their way? The town would never survive. He looked around him, again focusing on that smoke, and imagined its haze as the dust kicked up from the feet of a thousand weary souls, all coming for Nicodemus.

  As they neared, CK could see into the dugout through its uncovered entrance. In the firelight Mil stood next to the dour doctor, who was inspecting Rachel. Talmen entered, but CK stopped at the doorway. He turned around. In the distance, he watched the smoke rise slowly from those holes in the ground, like signs from the great fire below. “Nicodemus,” he said, testing whether something would happen, but there was no voice, no vision, no song. “Nicodemus,” he whispered again, and nothing came. The name meant nothing anymore but this. He felt alone out there in the coming of full dark, so he turned around and stooped to enter the dugout, surrendering himself to the will of what would come.

  THE AMERICANIST

  When John Romulus Brinkley, a.k.a. the Goat Gland Doctor, decided to publish his memoir, he hired someone else to write the book for him, and fed the man such a load of lies and half-truths that Brinkley succeeded in turning the seasoned biographer into a promising writer of fiction. But Brinkley needn’t have done so. His story required no embellishment. The book, The Life of a Man, was released long after he was already world famous, and it was a fame, as with his nickname, born of the millions of dollars he made injecting the testicles of Toggenberg goats into men to improve their virility. This was 1920s rural Kansas, a little nowhere town called Milford, but Dr. Brinkley put it on the American and world map, a destination for impotent and infertile men seeking to touch the hem of the Milford Messiah, the Ponce de León of Kansas who’d discovered the rejuvenation of man.

  Brinkley was that deadly combination: lucky, smart, and ambitious. Up from nothing to millionaire in a few short years, a kind of garish, backwoods Gatsby. He got in on radio early, purchasing one of the first private stations in the country in 1923, and Brinkley was shrewd in its use. He knew he couldn’t simply advertise his procedure on the airwaves. He had to win people over, seduce them, so he filled his programming with musicians and entertainers, going on the air himself only twice a day to give “medical talks” about the wonders of his goat gland operation. The procedure took ten minutes and cost seven hundred dollars. People came by the trainload. He was a charlatan, of course, but, most sexual hangups being psychological, the procedure worked for many. Believing you carried the fecund potency of a bearded, randy billy goat because you had its genitals slipped into your scrotum did wonders for a man’s confidence. Seeking to regulate the field, the newly organized American Medical Association made Brinkley its top target, going after him for a decade. Finally, by 1930, the AMA had pressured the Kansas Medical Board to revoke his license to practice and the federal government to revoke his license to broadcast, shutting down what had become in a few short years the most popular radio station in the country. It was a double victory for the AMA. They’d finally got him out of the operating room and off the air. Brinkley was finished, or so they thought.

  There’s more to the story, but I stop because Will asks if I’m making this up. Actually, it’s not a question—he just says that I am, but he does so in an amused way that tells me he believes every word and is only playing his part as interested listener, the receiver of a fantastic tale. Our relationship is six months old, and while the Brinkley story is true, I have already begun to tell the little lies that will become big lies. As in all my previous relationships, I’m pulling away from Will, or pushing him away from me, if there’s any difference. He recently moved into the house and will have moved out before I have the chance to finish telling him the story of the Goat Gland Doctor.

  Will stands at the stove, his back to me, stirring the vodka sauce for dinner with a long wooden spoon that was once straight but has begun to warp. He repeats his question. The Italian sausage sizzles on a neighboring burner, filling the air of the kitchen with a deliciously brackish fog. A large pot of water boils, awaiting pasta, sending steam over his head, which makes him look like a character in a cartoon who’s suddenly become furious, someone who’s literally blown his lid. I sit in a chair at the small breakfast table in the corner and turn my attention to the muted television, one of those small lunch-pail-sized ones people keep in their kitchens to watch the morning shows over breakfast, the news at dinner. NBC shows W’s face, a story about his upcoming bid for reelection in the fall. He has that look of his, a pained smile that suggests he’s still slightly surprised and annoyed to find himself running the country instead of a baseball team.

  “Michael,” says Will, turning. Dressed in the blue scrubs he wears each day at the clinic, he dries just the tips of the fingers of his left hand on a dish towel slung over his right shoulder. “You’re joking, right? Goat glands?”

  I shake my head and he asks where I heard the story. “I knew Brinkley’s son,” I say. “Many years ago—almost thirty—but only a short while. Johnny was his name. He told me about his dad. I didn’t believe it either.” Will’s eyebrows rise, and he nods slowly. I seem to have said this in a way that insinuates Johnny and I were lovers. I do nothing to correct the misapprehension, then offer an olive branch: “Maybe that’s what’s wrong with me. Maybe I need a pair of goat nuts shot into my sack”—a reference to my suddenly vanished libido, a sore point between us.

  Will exhales and moves to the table, squatting so that he’s at eye level with me. I can tell he wants to kiss me, but he’s been rebuffed enough of late that he’s timid and it’s like
he’s bringing his lips to his decrepit grandmother’s cheek at the end of a visit. “We’ve got to get you out of this funk,” he says. “What you need is a job. Something to keep you busy.” After twenty years at the Wichita Historical Society I was let go when the new state budget slashed our funding. The Society was told to become creative, entrepreneurial, to rely more on private donors. In response it cut its hours of operation in half and fired a third of the staff. Will moved in shortly before this happened and thinks it’s responsible for everything wrong in our relationship.

  “Maybe I wasn’t meant to have a job,” I say. “Maybe I was meant to be a home economist. Remember how they used to call it that when we were kids in high school? What a strange phrase. I’ll get business cards printed up with that as my title. Michael Kupchick, Home Economist. Sounds more important than Stay-at-Home Faggot.”

  Will bristles, hates when I use the word, so I find myself saying it more often than I normally would.

  “Do I need to remind you what a home economist does, and which one of us is cooking dinner right now?”

  “I could learn,” I say. “Or maybe I’ll start to write again. Sometimes I still feel the itch.”

  “You planning on penning a bestseller?”

  “Are you kidding? I’ve been producing historical copy for the museum for twenty years. I’d probably end up writing about radical farmers or exodusters.”

  “Exo-what?”

  “Never mind.”

  “Baby,” he says, “you do need to find a job. We need the money.”

  We. A ripple of revulsion moves through me. I look over Will’s shoulder at the boiling pot. “Don’t overcook the penne.”

  He returns to the stove and I open a bottle of wine, pouring two tall glasses of Shiraz. “They were out there again,” he says as he plates the food.

  “The lunatics? Still?”

  Last month a group called Kansas Families for Life began keeping a daily vigil outside the clinic where Will works, holding photographs of aborted fetuses, shouting at the sunglassed women and couples speed-walking to the entranceway of the health center. As a nurse, Will bears their wrath every time he leaves the building or helps usher a patient to her car. Despite this, he is possessed of a tolerance I find as infuriating as I do ennobling.

  “They’re only half crazy,” he says. “They have their beliefs. We have ours.”

  “Yeah, but theirs are wrong.” I point at the television, where the president speaks at a podium. “And they elect monsters like that.”

  “Oh, the rhetoric of Good and Evil has begun!” he says dramatically. “You sound just like them.”

  “Are you one of those self-hating gay Republicans? You should have told me before I let you move in.”

  “You asked me to move in.”

  “Did I? Sometimes I forget.”

  “All right, all right. Enough.” We go silent for a spell as we eat and drink. Will doesn’t pierce the pasta with his fork. He slides the tines through the body, hooking two at a time, and swipes them through the orange sauce before bringing the fork to his mouth. He does this every time, the unvaried precision of one who makes his life in the medical field. He takes a bite and then laughs softly—a single snort through his nose—muttering something about goat glands. “So you knew this guy’s kid. What happened to him?”

  “The father or the son?”

  “The son,” he says, adding flirtatiously, “Johnny.”

  “He blew his brains out.”

  “I’m sorry. Were you all—”

  “You think George has ever heard of the Goat Gland Doctor?”

  “I don’t know,” says Will, taking another one of his bites. “I’ll ask him tomorrow. Probably’d get a kick out of it. Dr. Tiller loves a good story.”

  I met Johnny in the summer of 1976, the summer of Bicentennial celebrations. I was twenty-eight, newly out, high on the promise of the life ahead of me, and he was forty-nine, a drunk crumbling under the weight of previous disappointments. Naturally we met in a bar. It was a place where I’d had some luck meeting men, but from Johnny I didn’t get sex—I got stories. Back then I fancied myself a writer. After graduate school in Lawrence, I’d returned to Wichita and published a collection of short fiction. Nobody read it, and my publisher told me that if I was going to make it in this business I needed to write a novel. I was trying to figure out how to do that when I met Johnny. He’d come to Wichita for a job he’d recently lost and was trying to save enough money to send for his daughter, who many years before had gone to live with his mother in Texas. We’d spend hours in the evening sipping fifty-cent drafts and well bourbon, talking. Mostly Johnny talked and I listened. He told me all about his father, the Goat Gland Doctor. I thought he was lying—such a character had to be invented—but the story checked out.

  I began to think that maybe I’d write my novel about his father, and soon I was jotting down ideas on cocktail napkins and taking notes. Johnny didn’t seem to mind. In fact, he was happy for all the attention I gave him. Once I brought him a copy of my book to show I was serious. He held up the sparse, white cover with the title running red-lettered across the middle. Johnny flipped through the pages. “The Thirty-Fourth Star. What’s it about?” I told him they were stories about Kansas. “Fiction,” he said with a look of distaste. He set the book down and slid it to me over the damp and sticky wood grain of the bar. “I don’t read make-believe and hocus-pocus. Nonfiction only. History, biography, memoir—real people doing real things!” It didn’t hurt my feelings. The stories felt distant and had already begun to bore me. Besides, I’d come to find Johnny charming, a wonderful, inebriated raconteur. The gin blossom at the tip of his small nose, the patches of thinning auburn hair where I could see his scalp, the way that stench of middle-aged despair disappeared when he was telling a story and his eyes shot wide with conviction. It was okay that our relationship was one-sided. He didn’t need me to reciprocate; he needed an audience, a witness, and so I was, if only for a short while.

  One morning in late June I walk into the bedroom, toweling off after a hot shower. Will’s stretched out on top of the made bed, already dressed, leafing through a copy of Cigar Aficionado before work. For reasons I can’t fathom he’s taken an interest in cigars. At first I thought he was trying to send me some subconscious phallic message, but it seems to be his attempt to transition to middle age with class. It’s a small thing to endure, I suppose, but it strikes me as an absurd affectation, these cigars that come in colorful, vibrator-like plastic cases. He eyes me over the top of his magazine and I feel self-conscious of my nakedness. I was handsome as a young man, even into my forties, but the long-haired, lean muscularity of my youth has withered into a bald, skeletal thinness at fifty-six. Sometimes I feel like Nosferatu.

  “Did you masturbate in the shower?” he says.

  “No,” I say, turning around to face my dresser.

  “Yes you did. I can tell by the smile on your penis.”

  I look down at it as I open my socks-and-underwear drawer. He’s right. It hangs there between my legs, bobbling a little, like the head of a dog that’s successfully returned a Frisbee to its master. I did in fact masturbate in the shower. It was unplanned. I was soaping up and my hands lingered too long downstairs, and I was hard. I knew I could have gotten out of the shower and had the real thing, but I began to go limp as I debated the matter. I wanted so badly to stay in the moment—I hadn’t felt the urge in a long time—so I tried to focus on something that would keep me there, and, finally, when I had it, I came all over my hand in a matter of seconds and let the shower’s weak pressure wash it off slowly into the drain. The image that had done the trick: that staged photo-op of W in dungarees and a cowboy hat clearing brush at the ranch in Crawford.

  “So what if I did?”

  “So what? We haven’t had sex in five weeks!” He tosses the magazine to the side and sits up on his elbows. Then a devilish smile crosses his face. “Of course, you could come here and get me off too.”
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  “We’re both going to be late.”

  Improvising, I step into briefs and move to the closet, where I pull a crisp, white dress shirt off its hanger and slip it on.

  “Where are you going?”

  “I have an interview,” I lie. “This morning. At the Kansas Aviation Museum.”

  He comes toward me, his mood softened from anger into an annoyance that won’t let him get too angry with me.

  “Why didn’t you tell me?”

  “I didn’t want to get your hopes up. What the hell do I know about airplanes?”

  He smiles halfway and removes the safety pin bearing the blue ticket from the dry cleaner that’s pinned below the last button of my shirt. He tells me I’ll do great and snaps the elastic waist of my underwear before heading out.

  I spend the morning at the Kansas Aviation Museum, not as an interviewee but as a patron. I walk past displays detailing Wichita’s large and largely unknown part in the history and development of American aviation, though in my previous work at the city’s Historical Society I’ve long understood our claim to being the “Air Capital of America”: that Cessna and Beechcraft started here and later came Boeing and Learjet, the bomber contracts of World War II that brought the B-52 and doubled the city’s population practically overnight. There are replicas of some of the original planes, models of men in early flight suits. I stop before a picture of Clark Gable at the Wichita airport in 1932. He was on a stopover from New York to California. The photographer caught him with a cigarette in one hand and a bemused look on his face, a look that seems to say, Isn’t it weird to see me in Kansas?

  On my way home I pass by Women’s Health Care Services and park across the street. The protesters still gather near a tall chain-link fence that was installed to allow patients and workers safe passage to the building after Dr. Tiller was shot in the parking lot almost ten years ago by a woman the media called “an activist.” Will had been inside the clinic at the time, had heard the shots and called the police before rushing outside, uncertain whether the gun would be turned on him. Will was unharmed, and Dr. Tiller survived the attack, vowing to continue his work on behalf of women. Will told me the story on an early date, shortly after we were introduced by mutual friends at a party last New Year’s Eve, and I wondered aloud how he summoned the courage to continue working at the clinic, knowing there were people out there who could do such a thing. Good and honest and brave Will told me he had to—“Like George says, it’s too important not to’’—and I thought I could love a man like that. I keep thinking maybe I’ll catch a glimpse of him now, walking a patient to her car or sneaking out for—what?—a cigar break, but I never do. When a man from the group spots me and starts walking toward my car, I leave.

 
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