LAURA CANON - HEARTS AND MINDS
Laura Canon is from Lexington, Kentucky. She has a BFA from New York University and currently lives in Henderson, Nevada with her family. She has been previously published in several literary journals, including Jersey Devil and Eunoia Review.
Hearts and Minds
“It’s better now.”
Yvonne looked at her brother, studying, as she had since she arrived, his face and the set of his shoulders. They were sitting out on the porch of the hospital, in the rain. Lines of water dripped from the eaves.
“Really,” George said. “It’s only like – like the sun is in my head, you know, very large and bright, and my thoughts are very small next to it. But they’re there. They’re just very small.”
She understood what he meant. She could see it, in fact, as if he had drawn a picture. But she did not reply, because she hated it when he talked like that. The stereotypical topics of insanity – God and the end of the world, mixed up with an obsession with mining disasters – the stupidity, the inane drivel of it. She had almost rather that those things be true, that there really were signs and portents, angels and spaceships, than to have to sit and listen to her brother spout such stupidity. Who had ever said that madness and genius were close together, propagated the suggestion that insanity had an edge of truth to it? No, madness was boring, inhuman, stupid, so stupid it made you want to weep. It was death. There was death and there was life, and she was in favor of life.
She looked out, beyond the rain, at the hospital grounds. Usually there were patients everywhere, sitting on the white metal porch chairs or strolling along the driveway and the lawns. Today the porch was deserted, except for a patient in a green Army jacket, sitting with his back against one of the columns. Part of his name was visible, stitched on the front of the jacket; a patch on one sleeve showed a coiled snake, with exaggerated fangs. He had long hair, longer than George's, extending over the edge of his collar as he turned his head slightly, flicking his cigarette. Out on the grounds a few patients were standing under the partial shelter of a large oak tree, smoking continuously as they gazed back up at the hospital. She had noticed that: the patients, when they were outside, always seemed to look at the hospital, concentrating their energy on it, instead of on the outside world. At the end of the driveway was a fence, of black ironwork, tall, but mainly ornamental. Every time she looked at it she thought that if you really wanted to climb over it, to get out, you probably could.
“You like it here?” she asked George.
He shrugged with one shoulder only, turning his head, and she turned hers away at the same time, realizing she would not get a real answer – not because he would think it necessary to lie to her but because he would be incapable of that kind of judgement. He might like it here because of the breakfasts they served, irrespective of anything else. Or the view from the window. They had taken him away from a terrible place once, everything bare and grim, the staff unfriendly – she had seen an orderly strike a patient -- and he had missed the view, talked about it for months. This hospital was old, run-down, but there was an earnestness to it, a sense of honest poverty; the staff was friendly enough, the doctors young, trainees. They liked to tell her what caused George’s obsessions, what kind of help he needed: new therapy techniques, new drugs, though she discounted half of what they said simply because they were so young – her own age, so what could they possibly know about anything?
A long roll of thunder broke, a prolonged muttering, so long she raised her eyes in disbelief as it continued. George laughed.
"There's nothing to see," he said. "You can't see thunder."
"I know," she said. The Vietnam vet looked over at them. Lightning flashed, out in the yard. She glanced at the patients under the tree.
“I hope they don’t get struck,” she said.
Immediately she felt the flatness of this statement, commonplace enough in any other situation. Both her brother and the vet ignored the sentence. The vet had held up one hand and was studying it. He had longish black hair on the back, and blunt nails, roughly filed down.
More thunder broke, the rumble just as long. But the rain was not noticeably harder. It was not really a thunderstorm, Yvonne thought, just an odd burst of energy in the clouds. The wood of the porch was soaked through and there were puddles on the driveway. The smell reminded her of camp, as a child: damp greenery, dripping ferns, enormous trees hiding the sky. Even on days like this, when it was hard to talk to George, she could sit here a long time, simply looking, thinking of nothing. She would go home, there would be things to do – a whole list, of things that seemed more important than they were, pinnacles on which you stepped, from one to the other, and yet which she longed to do, just for the pure satisfaction of doing them and because that was what life was made of, really. But for now she let the minutes go by; she let herself be held, fascinated, as if by the weaving of a spider’s web, in the self-absorption of two mental patients. Not until she finally heard a note in the rain that told her it was slackening off, did she push forward in her chair, so that George looked at her.
“I can’t come next week,” she said. “I’m taking the hoodlums – I mean, the Girl Scouts – on a picnic.”
George nodded, dipping his head forward slightly, as if this were a very commendable thing for her to do, hardly seeming to recognize that she had made a joke. She stood up and brushed off her jeans.
“Thanks for the book,” George said, holding it up. It was a large, rather ornate book, presented to her by her boss, of historical pictures of the city of Alexandria, in Egypt. She had thought George would like it. It was the kind of thing they both liked, pictures of times and places they had not been born into.
He raised his hand in a wave, then turned the gesture into the Star Trek salute. She gave a very small smile, annoyed again, but allowed it to widen. The smile fell on the vet, too, but he did not smile back, just looked at her, cautiously – the way men often looked at her when they were caught unawares. She went down the porch steps, putting up her umbrella, hearing the rain hit it as she went around the side of the building towards the parking lot. It was a Minnie Mouse umbrella, of clear plastic.
The town the hospital was in was one of straight streets, more numbered than named, with small houses and lopped-off trees, just leafing out. White clouds, a haze of rain covering the distant bay, only the spiky tanks of oil refineries showing through. Before she got on the highway she stopped at a Safeway. The store was nearly empty of people; a sign at the entrance warned of slippery floors from the rain. She intended only to buy soup and pork-and-beans but in the end she went down several aisles and added a jar of dried parsley and a six-pack of Tab, which she carried dangling from her forefinger as she went up front to pay.
When she got back in the car she cleaned the rain off her glasses with the edge of her shirt. They were the large, round frames that had become popular now; she thought they were too big, too prominent, really, but none of the various frames she had tried -- small, cat-eyed, wire-rimmed -- had done much for her.
On the highway the rain was stronger, the wind blowing it against the car. There was not much traffic, Sunday driving; she seemed to skate along, small hills, the road curving, now above a new neighborhood, backed up to a ridge, now below, reddish mud along the cuts and freeway exits, the roots of eucalyptus trees showing, their branches waving. Her thoughts skated, too: dinner, the soup, chicken from last night, there would be time to re-heat it, then the Cadettes in her Girl Scout troop, Beverly, Roberta, the others, dancing, showing off their adolescent moves, crying out this is my song! when “You’re So Vain” came on the radio. They were different than she had been at that age, they cared or seemed to care, very little, whereas she had been quiet, nervous around adults. She looked up at the exit sign overhead, judging how much further, rain still hitting the windshield, the radio cutting in and out in the hills, thought about the soup again, then about Nixon, the election, analytical now, worried, turning over the things she had read or heard, George Wallace’s appeal in the South, pushing those thoughts away, then wondering if Father Paul had called about next weekend yet. She thought of the vet, sitting on the porch, wondered if George knew him, his name, why he was there. (No, George never asked things like that.) The coiled snake on his arm, the war, the background to everything, still. It had been so all through her youth, all her years of understanding. Petitions in college, teach-ins, Buddhist monks on fire in Saigon, the early demonstrations, surprising in their size and passion, the numbers flooding the campus and the town. The strange names, Tet, Khe Sanh, that became sullenly familiar, more demonstrations, riots and near-riots, Nixon being elected, the new terms, Vietnamization, the maps of Cambodia and Laos. Soldiers back, addicted to drugs, those students killed in Ohio, My Lai. And all through it pictures on tv, wounded children, bombs falling, villages wrecked, the ugly dirty war, the folly of it, the nonsense, that this could be your country, that educated men could have committed themselves to this, and that they had spoken for so long of ending it, of peace with honor, and yet it did not end. Every April or May, for the past few years, the protests seemed to burst out again furiously – two years ago it had been the invasion of Cambodia – now, with the North Vietnamese offensive last week, it was beginning again.
The back window of the car was fogging up; she rolled down her window a little, felt the rain hitting her face. She could not reach across, driving on the highway, to the other window. A song came through on the radio, a voice swelling into a passion, that song whose words she could not ever make out, wonder if he’ll ever know… She thought of George giving her the Star Trek greeting, all the tv shows they used to watch together, Get Smart, The Fugitive -- the fugitive was a Christ-figure, he used to say, he makes good people do bad things and bad people do good things. She had not taken statements like that seriously, he was capable, then, of making the same jokes as everybody else.
The traffic was thicker, coming around the hills, merging onto another freeway, the freeway exits more familiar now, as she looked for hers. By the time she found it the rain had lessened. She drove through downtown, past the small, old-fashioned stores, behind whose fronts people now wove rugs or made jewelry or sold health food.
The street climbed, narrowed, turned residential. She waited at a stop sign, keeping her foot hard on the brake, feeling the car roll backwards slightly as she started again. The houses were small, built up against hills, some of them approached by long flights of steps. There were paths and staircases between the streets, too, offering shortcuts for pedestrians. The front yards, too steep for lawns, had rock gardens or flower beds. Two boys were skateboarding on her street; they picked up the boards and stood aside as she turned into the driveway. One lived next door, one further up the street, she knew their names, sort-of, noticed more that they were always outside, sometimes even after dark: she had often wondered about that.
Her father was in the living room, listening to the news on the radio; in the kitchen, putting the groceries on the counter, she could heard the announcer’s voice, but not the details, just the tension with which the news was always issued. She came back into the living room just as it ended. Music began, and her father reached over and turned the radio off.
“How was he?” he asked.
“All right. About the same.” She turned the radio back on, not because of the song – “Take a Letter, Maria” – but to indicate to her father that he should not assume she wanted it off. “Did you finish your chapter?”
Her father was a short man, wore glasses, had locks of greyish hair which he combed over the back of his bald head. He pushed himself up in the chair, as if trying half-heartedly to rise. There was a plate of olives and cheese on the arm of the chair, also a heavy book, half-open. A kind of work – reading, waiting for her to come home.
Her father’s typewriter sat on a table at the other end of the living room, in an alcove.
A bookcase, next to it, was half-filled with large academic books, including his book on Plotinus, and, on another shelf, various related monographs: St. Augustine, the history of aesthetics. The book on Plotinus, highly-regarded, had been published twenty years ago; for the past year he had been preparing an updated edition, which, on evenings and weekends, she helped him with, keeping track of footnotes and sources.
She went back into the kitchen to put the groceries away. Her mother had left her father when she was eleven, for a man who was an executive at an oil company with holdings in Mexico and Venezuela. He traveled a lot, and she planned to travel with him: this was the reason given for the children to remain with their father. If there had been gossip at the time, if they were the objects of pity to the neighbors, if there were things she still did not understand – how her mother had met Mr. Linz, how it had all taken place so quickly – and probably never would be told, she and George had not really minded, in the long run. All the things they had known, all the things they loved, not just the house, the yard, the town, but the things that went into their own childhood paradise – guinea pigs, summer camp, bicycles – all the things that counted, had continued. It was strange to think now that those things, magic beans, in a sense, had been so important: she would swear even now that they were vital, that those days had contained everything, that the continuation of them was worth more than whatever silly thing they might have been exchanged for. For years after that she and George had visited their mother and stepfather in Mexico during school vacations, sitting on the patio in the sun, watching cliff-divers, going home loaded with souvenirs, never wishing it was any different, never wanting to be anything but tourists.
She put the other groceries away, but left the can of soup out on the counter, and put the oven on. Last night’s chicken came out of the fridge and she put it in a pan, adding a little water to the bottom before covering it with tinfoil. For the first few years after her mother left they had had housekeepers, of varying reliability. When she was seventeen the last of these, Mrs. Shirley, failed to come in one morning, having died in her sleep; they had attended her funeral, at a church in Oakland, conveying their condolences to her daughter and son-in-law, and the following week Yvonne had bought a Betty Crocker picture cookbook and taken over the household meals. She supplemented the cookbook with recipes from the backs of Rice a Roni and Prince Spaghetti boxes; they were convenient, many of the ingredients coming from jars and cans; easy to make, dinner was always plentiful, warm, on time, and she enjoyed the feeling that she knew how to prepare it, that she could come up with a meal on short notice, with only what was in the pantry. Her father was not particular about his food, and George liked anything with lots of cheese; it was only the graduate students whom her father occasionally brought home who seemed less enthusiastic about her cooking.
The news was on again as they ate dinner. Those towns with their names so much alike.: Loc Ninh, An Loc. The NVA had taken one and was attacking the other. Quang Tri City – a more familiar name – was being evacuated. She got up and went into the kitchen to get ice for the glasses. An Air Force pilot, missing for several days, was still missing. When she came back in napalm burned across a field; dark smoke rose behind a small domed building. Bombers were being transferred from US bases in South Korea. Nixon and Kissinger were consulting with President Thieu. Refugees went fleeing down a road; they interviewed a woman carrying an injured child. The woman and the child were crying; someone off-camera translated for them, in a blank voice which did not match their distress. The scene switched to the ward of a hospital, also with wounded civilians, then the reporter returned, standing on a road in the middle of a field, the wind tugging at his hair, as he signed off. She realized she had been holding her fork tightly and set it down, looking away across the food, the half-filled bowl of vegetable soup. Her father, who had been watching also, reached for the pepper.
“Your mother’s birthday is on Saturday.”
“I know.” She thought of the earrings, purchased in a handmade jewelry place downtown, which she had sent off in the mail last week. They were sort of clumsy-looking, artisan-made – as if her mother couldn’t get that kind of stuff all over Mexico. But there was nothing she could really buy her mother, nothing she needed.
“We’ll have to call her. Did you send her something?”
“Yes,” she said, with slightly more force. It might have to be in the morning, early, when they called. She pushed back her chair and took the German dictionary off the bookshelf.
“There’s a C after the S in Historische. And Zeitschrift. Z-E-I-T-S-C-H-R-I-F-T.”
“Is that Dolger?”
“F. Dolger. Zur Frage der Einheit. Historische Zeitschrift 6 1939 pp. 44-6.” She said the unfamiliar words loudly. They appeared to be spelled correctly, but she opened the dictionary again, just in case. “What does Zur Frage der Einheit mean?”
“‘Towards a question of unity.’ Or, ‘on a question of unity.’”
Unity sounded like Plotinus, though she had never been able to quite understand Plotinus. When those people who had gotten far enough into a conversation for the subject to come up asked her who Plotinus was, she would say, he influenced the Neo-Platonists. No one had ever gone any further, and she probably herself could not have. Part of her disliked all forms of philosophy: only men, she thought, could argue about whether the world, or any perception of it, is real, instead of actually doing something. But she also liked to think of men like F. Dolger, going to libraries, through war and peace, staking out their corners of research, postulating their arguments about thought in 3rd century Rome. The tv was on, the same reporter who had been reporting from Vietnam now talking about left-wing terrorist groups in Germany. Outside it was dusk. Bella, their gray Persian cat, was sitting in the front window.
“They’ll be changing the clocks soon,” she said. “Then it’ll be light after dinner.”
Her father got up to open the door for Bella. “Did George like the book?”
“I think so. I saw him looking at it.”
“Where did Mr. Hakalis get it?”
“I think one of his friends published it.” Mr. Hakalis, her boss, had actually been quite pleased to present the book to her, pointing out to her several of the pictures of streets and alleyways in Alexandria. She had the impression that he had lived there, or that his family had, although as far as she knew, he was Greek. “Oh, he took the picture of the King down again.”
“Yes, and his brother put it back up the next day. So then Mr. Hakalis went by it and knocked it like this –” she put out her elbow “—and it stayed crooked all day.”
The picture was unreal to her, bright-colored, showing Constantine II, the now-exiled King of Greece, young and handsome, a jangle of gold braid and medals on his uniform.
“I don’t know why he hates the king so much.”
“The royal family was never very popular.” Her father had traveled in Greece as a college student, before World War II. “Either that, or he is a die-hard supporter of the junta.”
“Oh, I don’t think so.” She had no evidence for this, other than that she liked Mr. Hakalis. Most of the conversation at Hellenic Exports was in Greek. She was employed because they needed an English-speaking secretary to send invoices to the gourmet stores in San Francisco which sold Greek cheeses and to write letters to mysterious entities like the California Department of Revenue. Mr. Hakalis and the others in the office kept Continental hours, taking long lunches and then staying at work until seven or eight o’clock at night, but they did not expect the same of her. This gave her free time in the afternoons, which she liked; she liked also the idea of her job, of working for something small and intricate, unimagined by the larger world. There were also the holidays, which always seemed to fall about two weeks after everyone else celebrated them, and included ones she had never heard of, like the Dormition of the Virgin. There was another one tomorrow -- Easter Monday.
She put the German dictionary back and opened another book, looking over the pages her father’s secretary had typed.
P. Henry, op cit.
Byzantine Aesthetics 23 1904 pp.12-13
His secretary did the actual proofreading and editing, the same secretary who had been thanked in the acknowledgements of the first edition. She hoped that this edition might say, my daughter, Yvonne… as well. My daughter, Yvonne, whose careful scholarship saved me many valuable hours, or much valuable time, or saved me from many careless errors. For that was what she did, sort of: scholarship, keeping footnotes in correct order and format, straightening out sources. Bella came into the living room from the kitchen and stopped, looking at them, one leg lifted slightly, as if she could not decide if they were fit company, then she ran past them up the stairs.
“Did you talk to Mrs. Blanco again?” her father asked.
“No. I meant to, but I didn’t.” She sat back in the chair, looking over at the tv. It was the top of the hour, later than she had thought. Father Paul should have called by now. “There’s no hurry.”
“Her daughter might get another roommate.”
“She might. But I can always find someone else.” She looked at the window, by habit, then remembered Bella had just gone upstairs. “Anyway, we haven’t finished the book.”
“Well, you could still come over on weekends. It’s not a complete separation.”
Her father had suggested last fall that she might like a place of her own. She had her job, she could afford the rent, she would meet people her own age. He could get by, with the meals and household chores, tv dinners, he said, another housekeeper if he must. You could start your own life, he had said, and she had felt a deep breath catch underneath her, with anger in it.
“I thought it would be better to wait until George came home,” she said. “You know, he might need – someone to look after him.”
Her father stared at her. “It doesn’t have to be you.”
“I don’t mean like that. I mean, just to, keep him in touch with things.” She didn’t like to think of George and her father home alone together: they would ignore each other, ingrained in their separate habits. She realized she was still picturing herself coming over, cooking for them, managing the house.
The phone rang. Her father, locating the phone at the back of the desk, where it had been pushed by books and papers, picked it up. He listened a minute and then handed the receiver over to her.
“It’s your reverend,” he said. He always referred to Father Paul this way.
“Hi, Yvonne. I’m not calling too late, am I?”
“No, it’s fine.” He was always very polite on the phone, sometimes even warm, although only in a cautious sort of way, but this could always be overtaken by a business-like tone, as it was now. Something was happening.
“Well, I think we’ve finally got some things in order. Can you be here in twenty minutes?”
“Sure.” She saw her father look up at her.
“Leonard won’t be there, but Dana’s coming. Are you sure it’s not too late? It’s just that, if we’re thinking about next weekend, there’s not much time... Did you see the news tonight? Nixon has authorized airstrikes above the 20th parallel. They’re transferring more than 100 F-4s from South Korea.”
“I know,” she said. “Twenty minutes is fine.”
“Going out?” her father asked, when she hung up.
“An emergency meeting.”
“We’re trying to organize something for next weekend.” She walked across the room, found her purse, lying open on the sofa, and said, in the stiff way she always spoke about the war, when she had to:
“When the monsoon breaks, they’re going to bomb the hell out of Hanoi.”
She thought of the woman and child on the news, bombs falling from airplanes, the same feeling she had had in the car, that this sickening stuff had been going on forever, that no one ever listened.
Her father sighed. He had never supported the war, having this in common with most of the faculty. But he didn’t like demonstrations, had soured on them even more two years ago when they had shut down the university for a week, disrupting ordinary life: the smell of tear gas, sirens at all hours, phone shrilling with the sudden news that someone was missing or had been arrested. The same thing had happened last year, with more chaos and destruction: cars had been turned over and burned, students had roamed the streets, smashing in bank windows. How does turning over a car stop the war? he had asked her repeatedly, as if the question were a profound one. She had not bothered to explain that she had not turned over the car, that the CFPV (Churches For Peace in Vietnam) did not support such things, was drawn mainly from clergy and housewives, not students or militants. They delivered petitions, held candlelight vigils and marches for peace; one chapter had lain down in front of the White House to represent the war dead, another had tried to plant trees on a naval base. They sent medicine and blankets to North Vietnam, via Canada, and raised money for orphanages in the South. They disrupted stockholders meeting of Dow, Honeywell and other military contractors. They were sometimes politely arrested.
As she put her jacket on, her father said:
“Why do you wear such bright clothes?”
“That shirt.” He was not looking at her, adjusting his gaze to the papers she had stacked by the typewriter. “Why do you wear such a bright shirt?”
“It’s not bright.” She looked down at it, the floral pattern, more pink than red, hardly bright at all, especially compared to what she had seen other girls wear. “I don’t think it’s bright.”
She opened the front door. The air outside was still damp, from the earlier rain. “I shouldn’t be more than an hour.”
“Have fun,” he said.
She went down the front steps in the dark. Her father never commented on her clothes. She could not remember the last time he had said such a thing, the last time he had even seemed to notice what she wore. But perhaps it was something he had been thinking about for a long time, something he never knew how to say, had only thrown out now, awkwardly, in hope of helping her, for there was no doubt in her mind that he had said it sincerely. Her father was not underhanded. In the light of the open car door she glanced at the shirt again – it wasn’t bright at all, really, only a little pink. But she could see it now from his point of view, too bright, too tight, showing her flabby stomach, the outline of her bra and bra straps visible, though other girls got away with that, or less, often enough.
The parking lot of the church had cleared out from the Sunday evening service. She recognized Father Paul’s car in the clergy spot, normally used by Father Gus, the rector. It was an Episcopal church, one she had been attending all her life. Her parents had been married there; her father still came on Christmas and Easter, standing in the back, singing the familiar hymns loudly. George had attended with her when he was younger, and still sometimes went when he was home. The building was long, rectangular, rather plain on the outside, painted wood. Cement steps led up to the door. As she got out of the car she saw Father Paul standing on those steps, talking to two girls.
“It’s on 9th street, about two blocks down,” he said.
The girls were young, skinny, they stood shoulder to shoulder, chilly, shaking in the night air, one of them with her arms pulled inside her sweatshirt.
“We can’t sleep here?” the one in the sweatshirt asked.
“I’m sorry. We’ll be serving breakfast at 6:30 but until then…” Father Paul shrugged. “Tell you what, I could call over to the mission and see if they have any space tonight.”
The girls looked at each other. Yvonne could see them better now, in the light above the church entrance. Unsteady on their feet, with that eye-rolling look that she had learned to recognize: strung out, looking for a fix. Also the one in the sweatshirt was not a girl but a boy, a thin one, with long straight hair.
“It’s OK,” he said, after thinking for a moment. “We’ll go on over there.”
They swayed together for a moment, stumbled, turning, hip to hip. She didn’t think the boy intended to go to the mission; they would find somewhere to stay tonight – whatever that entailed – and come back at 6:30 for the free breakfast.
“Just a minute,” Father Paul said.
Yvonne had already started to climb the steps; she looked back from the door to see Father Paul giving the boy some money from his wallet. She stood, waiting, thinking it was better to pretend she hadn’t seen. She didn’t like the idea that he had done it maybe because she was there. Also, it was not safe: the couple might wait now, and rob him coming out. You heard of such things.
Father Paul came up the steps and shut the door, locking it behind him.
“Dana’s already here. We were at the coffee shop.”
“You didn’t do Evensong?”
“No, Father Gus took it. I don’t think that many were there.” Sunday Evensong was high church, popular among the older parishioners. Father Paul had recently started a Saturday night mass, less formal, which she and the younger people in the church often went to.
They walked through the church, towards the back, Father Paul stopping to genuflect in front of the altar. She walked around to the side aisle to avoid being directly in front of the altar; genuflecting was one of those things she felt awkward about. Easter had been last Sunday; the altar was hung with white cloth, the cross was unshrouded again, decorations back up. Next to the aumbry the sanctuary lamp flickered in a red glass. She had always liked to watch the flickering, since she was a child, even when she did not really understand why the lamp was there. She followed Father Paul out of the nave, through a small door and down a set of cramped stairs to the basement. A long room, used for everything, wooden tables, also used for everything. Confirmation class at age twelve; pancake suppers; fall carnivals; serving at the free breakfasts; helping with coffee hour – all that work, women’s work, of the church – and everything else: the priest in his vestments, the bishop’s visits, the organ crashing out hymns; the Church Triumphant; Christian Responsibility; Where Cross the Crowded Ways of Life, Turn Back O Man, Once to Every Man and Nation…
“Do you remember that hymn we used to sing,” she said.
“Once to every man and nation
Comes a moment to decide
In the strife of truth and falsehood
For the good or evil side.”
Father Paul put his hand to his forehead. “Yes. Walter Russell Bowie – or – no – well, someone like that.”
“I was just thinking – how they used to stir me up, you know. I wanted to go out and fight injustice and set right all the wrongs of the world, all through the recessional.” It was what she most remembered: all the past triumphs of the church, abolition, missions in urban slums, the stirring up of Christian conscience, all the old fights. She smiled at Father Paul, feeling proud that she had remembered something he did not know.
“Well,” he said, “some of those old guys were really very radical, you know, if you listen to them.”
The door of his office was half-open. Dana was sitting on one of the two chairs opposite the desk, a legal pad on her knee. She was the church secretary, older than Yvonne by about ten years.
“Hi,” she said. “It wasn’t a problem, was it, coming out this late?”
“It’s not late.” She did this a lot with Dana, she knew, always correcting her, jousting with her, over little things. It was because of the coffee shop. Though she and Father Paul had probably sat there, barely able to hear each other over the loud music, Father Paul talking about Nixon the whole time, anyway. Trying to be nicer, remembering that Dana was divorced, with a child to raise, she asked, “Did you have to bring Anne?”
“No, my mother’s watching her.”
Father Paul’s office was discreetly decorated. There were a few old-fashioned religious pictures, probably inherited from a previous occupant, next to which he had put up a poster of Martin Luther King, Jr. There was also a CFPV poster: Churches For Peace in Viet Nam, spelled out in large, friendly, cartoon-like letters. Below the words was an undulating black scrawl which, looked at a certain way, resembled a line of people trudging away from a destroyed village. Other than this the walls were bare. Father Paul’s apartment, which she had been to, once, was completely different: it might have been any student apartment, with posters for bands and music festivals, plus the normal political ones, for peace, Free Huey, Free Angela Davis, and various other causes. Yvonne had often wondered if the lack of decoration in his office was deliberate or at the request of Father Gus.
“I spoke to Leonard,” Father Paul said, as he sat down behind the desk. Leonard was the pastor of a Methodist church that they often worked with. “And I spoke to Gerry in Oakland – I actually had quite a long conversation with him, about some of the issues they’ve had in Oakland.” He sat back in his chair. “And, by the way, this is an unofficial meeting.”
Dana smiled. “We just happen to be having a conversation in your office.”
“Yes – we could have gone to the coffee shop.” He waved a hand in that direction. “Although I don’t think it matters much. But anyway, this is just an informal conversation.”
In January Father Gus had told them he would no longer allow them to have CFPV meetings on church property. There had been varying levels of support from the congregation over the years; a number of women, and most of the young people, coming out for the marches. Older members were restrained, later scornful; after Nixon was elected they sometimes said, I think we ought to support the President. The vestry, all men, all, in her eyes, old, had brought up CFPV as an issue several times; pledges were down, they said, some important people had left the church. Only Father Gus had the power to forbid the use of the building. He had never been a supporter of the group, but he had interceded for them occasionally, subscribing to the notion of inclusion, of allowing different points of view, as well as compromise. Now he suggested compromise to them, looking pained, saying it was better this way. What had they achieved, after all, in all these years? And Father Paul had shrugged and said they would meet off-premises, then. Father Gus could not forbid the existence of the group, only the use of the building.
Father Paul was talking now about Nixon’s renewed bombing of North Vietnam. The only thing holding it back was the weather. The NVA had used the monsoon for cover when they attacked, but when it broke Air Force planes would fly over Hanoi day and night.
“It won’t be the NVA they’re trying to stop,” Father Paul said. “The NVA has most of its forces in the South. They’ll be bombing villages, hospitals, civilian areas. The bombing is to punish the North, the people of the North, not to stop the invasion. It’s not to save South Vietnamese or American lives.”
Yvonne nodded. She knew this, of course. Nothing that had been done in the past few years had gone towards saving lives, although Americans were being brought home; the destruction of South Vietnam had only grown, the war spreading to Cambodia and Laos. That was another element that bothered her – as if only American lives mattered, if fewer Americans were involved. She thought back to the beginning of the movement, her high school and college years: there had been anger, but what she really remembered now was the idealism – even the anger was an idealistic anger, moving you to tears of frustration and hope, to think that the stupidity of the war was obvious, that leaders in Congress, musicians, poets, scientists, anyone you asked, almost, condemned it, that surely all those people must have some effect, must push forward a great wave which would eventually bring down the tattered stage set, the window dressing of excuses for the war. Even when Nixon had won in 1968 she had had some hope that maybe, in some contrarian way, he might resolve things. He had talked enough about ending the war during the election: perhaps the very things that had bound Johnson would not bind him. Instead the movement had turned, somehow: the idealism, the simplicity that had made it seem so obvious had been taken from them; the cynicism, the bitter opportunism, of Nixon seemed to feed the movement instead, as if the personality of each President was reflected in the opposition to him.
“It looks like the campuses are going to come out this weekend, too,” Father Paul was saying. “From everything I’ve seen, it will continue all through next week. I think they’ll end up shutting the universities down again.”
“My father won’t like that,” she said.
“Well, what can you do?” Dana said. “It’s ridiculous – after eight years --”
“It’s all been said before,” Father Paul said. “You know everything as well as I do. But what more can you do? We have to say what we have to say. We can’t let them keep the war going on, as if we no longer care. People will just keep dying. Women and children –” He broke off.
That was it. Women and children. Men, too, she supposed, but you spoke more often of women and children. She had sometimes thought it odd how appealing the Vietnamese seemed in pictures, the women with their long black hair, the children, their faces so different, so odd, yet with an extra sort of pathos. She had never met a Vietnamese person. There had been some Oriental girls, Chinese and Japanese, in her high school, but she had not known them well. And yet the pictures, the tv scenes, from Vietnam, had made her cry many times, as if something in the land and people had a hidden value, something mythic, something being destroyed before their eyes.
“Well,” Father Paul said again. “You know all that as well as I do.”
He was sitting back in his chair now, pushing it all the way back so he could put his feet on the desk. He often sat this way. He wore a t-shirt and jeans; he looked, with his beard and dark, wavy hair, a little like those pictures of Paul McCartney on his farm in Scotland. He was staring at something on his desk, abstracted, disgusted, probably, with the line of the conversation. She waited for him to return, to look up at her. You could meet people your own age. She knew plenty of people her own age. Meet a man, her father meant, get married. She didn’t think it would be any better just because she was living in an apartment: it was too easy to imagine a pretty roommate, who would probably have a lot more dates than she did. In the meantime, there was Father Paul. But she did not know how she really felt about him. Judging the tone of his voice on the phone, that was something – automatic, normal, perhaps. The jokes she told, the ways she tried to appear intelligent, witty, interesting, when he was around. But she had always done that, since he first started as associate priest, gradually he had responded, there had been friendship, partly based on CFPV, because that was one of his main interests. Still, she did not know if there would ever be anything else. She did not think of him much, in the way that girls were supposed to think about crushes, and yet he appeared to her sometimes as the only human person she knew, the only one who might be interested in her as herself, without any ulterior motive.
He was talking now about the weapons that were shipped out of the Port of Oakland. They had protested down there, near the Naval Supply Center, several times.
“Bollich,” he said. “They make cluster bombs. The Michigan chapters have been spearheading an effort to encourage them to stop renewal of their military contracts and concentrate on their consumer products. Resolutions at stockholders’ meetings and so on, as well as demonstrations.”
“They made our thermostat,” Yvonne said. How many times had she gotten up in the middle of the night and seen Bollich glowing blue in the dark, the B large and dignified, in a comforting way.
“I own one of their cameras,” Father Paul said. “I’ve had it 15 years now. It’s a great camera. They also make fire extinguishers, burglar alarms, heavy-duty freezers, perfume – through a French subsidiary – certain types of computer parts, missile guidance systems, napalm and land mines. Most of the military products are shipped out of Oakland.”
“So what are we going to do?” she asked.
“We’ll try to shut it down. We’ll stop it as best we can. If they can’t get those bombs out, to drop on civilians, even if we delay it a few weeks --” he paused. “Well, maybe the bombing will have stopped by then. Maybe Nixon will cancel it, if enough people come out.”
She and Dana both nodded. Yvonne thought of cluster bombs, what she had read of them, the pictures she had seen. They maimed, tore off hands and legs. Sometimes they lodged in the ground, unexploded, and children came along and picked them up. Thousands had been dropped not just on Vietnam but over Laos and Cambodia, as well.
Dana said she would start on the flyers. Father Paul suggested she take them to the print shop, but Dana waved a hand and it was understood that she would use the church Xerox 414. They came together around the desk, calendars and notebooks open, making lists, people to call, supplies to get. There were going to be other protests that day, one in LA, some in San Francisco; some people from CFPV were going to those. Oakland was getting the permit for the march. Father Paul began looking through his desk for CFPV letterhead. Yvonne glanced over, noting, in the open drawers, a pack of cigarettes, some pamphlets on confirmation, and one of the underground papers, the kind that ran raucous cartoons on its cover, folded over to the back-page classified ads. Some of them had been circled, but she was too far away to see under what heading. She did not like herself looking, and she sat back, thinking that after all, he might just want to buy a tv.
As they worked they talked more freely; a reversal of the silence at the hospital that afternoon; she asked questions, probed for news, gossip about what was going on in church. Father Paul went to the window and lit a cigarette, Dana, describing something, made gestures with her hands, and fell back in her chair, laughing. Yvonne repeated her joke about the Girl Scouts.
“I’m taking the hoodlums on a picnic Sunday.”
“Where are you going?” Father Paul asked, still standing by the window. He had opened it a crack to let the smoke out.
“Lagoon Park.” She felt slightly guilty now, for her levity, and added. “We’re going to cook out. They like that.”
“Sounds nice,” Father Paul’s tone was warmer, almost as it had been on the phone.
“I better bring the canteen,” she said. “To the protest.” Water was good not just to drink, but as first aid for tear gas. At previous protests she had soaked bandanas and shirts, held them over her face. She added these to the list as well; an extra shirt was always a good idea. Dana looked at her watch and in a few minutes the meeting broke up.
“I’ll have to look for the letterhead at home,” Father Paul said, as he shut the door to his office. “If not, I can just type it up top. Oh, the banner – I wonder if I still have the banner.”
“Leonard used to have it,” Yvonne said.
“Wasn’t that the small one?” Dana asked. “I wonder where the large one went.”
Father Paul stood back from the stairs to let the two women go up first. There was an icon at the top of the stairs, unusual among the church pictures, which were mostly old-fashioned, all sandals, beards and robes. In the icon Jesus looked serious, holding up one long-fingered hand while his other clasped a jeweled book. It was probably a famous icon, the heritage of some Slavic country, donated for some forgotten reason, ending up squeezed in at the top of the stairs. Next to it was an appliqued banner, done by a church member, showing a black hand and a white hand joined together. She looked at the icon as she waited at the top of the steps for Father Paul. There as a sense of motion to it, as if Jesus was about to stand up.
“I went to see George today,” she said.
Father Paul squinted up at her, interested. “Really? How’s he doing?”
She hesitated a moment. She remembered the first time George had gone into the hospital, when she was in college, how people asked about him and she was no better at answering, as if there was a plastic box around the whole thing, something she could not penetrate. But now it was just a practical hesitation: same as usual meant something in particular to her father, something it would not mean to anyone else.
Dana, misunderstanding her silence, began to murmur something sympathetic.
“He’s learning to manage, I guess,” Yvonne said.
They had come back out into the nave. She could smell the Easter lilies, still set in thick rows around the sanctuary.
“He was always such a funny boy,” Dana said. “I mean, he always made me laugh. He used to come into the office and we’d have these nice talks.”
Yvonne doubted this, since it did not accord with any memory she had. She said:
“I’ll think he’ll come home soon.”
Father Paul opened the door for both of them. Still thinking of the boy and girl, she glanced around the parking lot, but it was deserted. Now she wondered where they had gone. Getting high somewhere, if they spent the money Father Paul gave them on a fix. He must have known they would. But otherwise the girl might have sold herself – she could not be sure of that, but it was what you always heard about addicts. Maybe even the boy, too – he had been so androgynous-looking.
At the door there was a brief round of confirmations, what each was to do, that Father Paul would call by Friday if anything had changed. Good nights were said. Father Paul added:
“Next time you go see George, say hi for me.”
She got into the car and it had been a long day and she was tired, but it was a dreamy sort of tiredness, euphoric, as if the meaning of the day might be found in glittering fragments. You’re too easily cast down, her father had said to her once. It was true: a chance remark or inflection could shadow a day, shift it about, but she could be lifted up just as easily, and she was now, simply by the feeling around the table in Father Paul’s office, the feeling of being among friends, though nothing intimate had been said. Fragments of places she had been to on vacation, as a child, came to mind: lighthouses, pioneer cabins. The light above the ocean, the land falling away suddenly, dirt floors, the smell of wood and leather, the smell of the world of the pioneers.
It was Sunday night, most stores closed, not many people out, even near the University. At a stoplight the noise from the car next to her coalesced into “White Rabbit.” Her own past, her daydreamy self, listening to the song in her room, the daring-ness of it, the references which they pretended to understand, college parties, pot, everyone stoned, making out on the sofa with some frat boy, pushing him off, wishing French kissing was as nice as she had been led to believe it was. The newness of it all, the suggestion that the truth was found to be lies (as the other song said), Grace Slick striding across the Fillmore stage in high boots, singing and if you go…chasing rabbits, protests all summer that year, a summer in which there wasn’t much but music and protests. A new world, a world which was still here, which had never become what they wanted it to be, but had never reverted, either: you saw it in the boy and girl in the parking lot. Once it would have been impossible to see two kids like that, out on their own, drifting through life. Now it seemed to be permanent, something you would have to adjust to, the kids, the fear that drove them, the way everything was fragmenting away.
The road climbed, into the hills. Up and down this street all her life, childhood trips, to the library, the dentist, piano lessons. Joyrides with George. Every house, every corner familiar, something they had made up stories about, pulled into their imaginations. Walking the neighborhood, easy days, the rustle of trees, old houses, stone walls, mockingbirds flashing white-winged from branch to branch. Foggy mornings, the trees dripping as she walked to school, and later, when she was older, to the bus stop. The neighborhood being suddenly mysterious at night, the paths between the streets threatening ghosts and murder; Halloween – George off with the older boys, coming home late; parties on the patio, before her mother left, later the neighbors giving the parties, laughing over drinks, guests, stepping out into the night, calling farewells. The awareness of how old things were, that this part of California was connected by clipper ships and the railroad to the older ways back East, that they had kept something of that gentility, seen in old photos of the earnest people, learners and leaders, upright men and women, who had built the neighborhood, where now musicians and nuclear physicists and writers lived. Most exciting of all were the days when something ended, because endings were as glorious, in their way, as beginnings. The last day of the bus (or not riding the bus), the last gym class, the last piano lesson – a day you were always working towards, a great goal, slowly crawled to.
But that goal, growing up, had been achieved, and she still lived here, among the same houses and trees.
The garage smelled of gasoline and cement, and bags of mulch. It was the familiar smell, before the dryness of summer began. Inside the house, her father was in the armchair, Bella on his lap. The tv was still on, The FBI, a show her father almost never watched – nor did she, thinking it laughably unrelated to its supposed subject. If he had it on, he must not have done much work at all while she was gone. She had noticed, as they got closer to the end of the book, that he seemed less motivated. Taking off her jacket and putting it away, she told him about the meeting.
“We’re going to march in Oakland, on Saturday. Blocking the port.”
“You’ll get arrested,” he said.
“Maybe,” she said, and added, “You didn’t call Dr. Ebadi yet, did you?” Dr. Ebadi, who worked the Near Eastern languages department, was supposed to help with the chapter on Plotinus’ influence on early Islamic philosophy.
She went upstairs. Her room was also still partly the room of childhood, posters of fey maidens she had bought at a head shop downtown, along with anti-war posters. She stood for a moment looking at the books on the bookshelf for something to take to work this week. These, too, were the books of adolescence, Siddhartha, Stranger in a Strange Land, C.S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength, which she had liked because of its university setting. She did not feel like reading any of them now, though.
She thought of the week ahead, the pinnacles: work Tuesday, the Cadette meeting, stuff for the picnic, she would go shopping on Friday night for the hot dogs, make a list, the march, posters, she would have to get together with Dana and the others. She was not sure, at the moment, weighing each of them, if she looked forward more to the march or the picnic. It would be inconvenient to be arrested, though. She had been, once before: a hasty sequence of a dirty van, a crowded police station, her father bailing her out, a silent ride home. The charges had been dropped. That was nothing, nearly everyone she knew in the movement had been through that, even Father Paul. It was a process of being broken in to the routine, learning that you had been threatened by a system which could not really do anything to you. But if it was a large march, if there were lots of arrests, the police and courts might take their time, hold everyone overnight. Please, your honor, I have a Girl Scout picnic to go to. She thought about the Berrigans, back East, the criminal trials – they had broken the law on purpose, burning draft records. There was something show-offy about that sort of thing, but perhaps she was just not brave enough to do such things, something bound her, some restraint that she had grown up with, connected in its way to Plotinus and the world of men writing about third-century Rome through modern wars. She hoped Father Paul was right, that the bombing might be cancelled, but she thought the protest would probably accomplish nothing. Nothing had so far, anyway. At least she could say that she was not going along with it, that she was not standing by while her government dropped bombs that tore off children’s hands.
She moved to the window, pulling the curtain aside, looking at the lights of other houses, scattered across the hills. Always the backyard, the houses, made her think of George. He would be in bed now: they ate dinner early at the hospital, went to bed early, slept heavily, sedated. They would all be in bed now, the maniacs, in now from under the oak trees, they would be lying in their small beds, with screens on the windows, thick wire ones, like the screens on rabbit hutches.
This made her think of the guinea pigs they had kept as children, and how they would go to a corner of their cage sometimes and lie down with their heads tilted to one side, looking at you. She and George had built hutches for them, that could be moved inside or out. Perhaps it had only been a few years of childhood, that period of being old enough to invent and pretend, before the time when nothing mattered except what someone else thought of you, that period of guinea pigs and splendor – it had seemed like forever, though, it seemed as if the guinea pigs had formed dynasties, risen and fallen in tales told in chronicles. One had died young, another had produced improbable litters, another had lived to an un-heard of age, nearly seven years, and been laid to rest with great ceremony. There was no sadness for her in this now: they had led happy lives, all carrots and alfalfa and grass in the summer, they had fulfilled whatever destiny guinea pigs were supposed to have.
And now here she was, and there was George, in the hospital – but she did not think that there was anything in that, that any straight lines might be drawn. Instead she thought of the thick wire screens on the windows, that they, too, could probably be dislodged, if you really wanted to get out.
Before she left work on Tuesday she went into Mr. Hakalis’ office to say goodnight.
“I’m going to pick up some coffee tomorrow. We’re almost out.”
“Whatever you want.” He didn’t care much for American-style coffee, she knew. The portrait of the king, behind him on the wall, was straight again. There were other posters, intended to promote Greek agricultural products: olive trees, black nets swathed around their trunks, a stony field with a flock of sheep and a shepherd wearing a skirt. On the desk there was an Olympia Greek-letter typewriter – she had the only English–language one in the office – and piles of papers. Mr. Hakalis always seemed to be writing. There was also a small icon, not the same as the one in the stairway at her church, but similar in style.
“Wait, Yvonne.” He always pronounced her name ee-vonne, the Greek way, unlike most other people, who said yuh-vonne. “Did you call the Encarta? What did they tell you?”
“They said thirty-two dollars.”
“What thirty-two dollars? Tomorrow, let me talk to them.”
“Have a good drive.” He said this every day, when she left. She supposed he meant it literally, referring to the traffic.
Hellenic Exports was a small office in a building of small offices, three rooms, a glass door, opening to a parking lot overseen by gulls, the sound of ferry horns in the distance, though you could not quite see the water. When she had time she sometimes took the streets instead of the freeway, because of the traffic referred to by Mr. Hakalis, but today she climbed the exit ramp, up into the sunlight, away from the warehouses and small industrial buildings, until she was high enough to see the bay, tossing blue waves sheering into solid silver in the distance. The buildings of San Francisco and the Golden Gate were thin marks in the haze. She thought of what Mr. Hakalis had said about the Encarta, as she drove. She didn’t like to contradict people, when they told her prices, it seemed rude. Then he would take the phone from her, saying, with an air of basic instruction, as if she were his daughter, you have to negotiate, or they give you bad price. She thought he sometimes looked unhappy, but this might have been her imagination; he was old, near her father’s age, his face had weathered to the point that his eyes had a deep look. He had worked outdoors once, maybe. Or maybe that was war service – he would have been old enough to fight in World War II, she supposed. Now he sat in an office, trying to persuade Americans to buy Greek exports, that was all, at least, he had ever spoken to her about. But she liked that Mr. Hakalis and his brother did not seem interested in American politics or culture, never asked her about the war, the protests, music, anything. She had always supposed that, in their European way, they must despise all that.
When she got home her father was upstairs, in bed. He had come home early from the university, he didn’t feel well, he said, his stomach was upset. She went into his room, trying to determine if it was anything serious. He waved his hand, annoyed.
“It’s just a stomach bug.”
“Do you want anything? Don’t you want dinner?”
He shook his head, and closed his eyes again. As she left he suddenly said:
“They settled the baseball strike.”
“The owners gave in. They’re going to play on Thursday.” His voice was hoarse but urgent, as if he had been waiting all day to share the news with someone.
She went downstairs. She had forgotten about baseball, since it had not started as it should have last week; the players holding out for an increase in their pension fund. The players had never struck before; there had been a lot of complaining about it, on tv and in the newspapers. If even the ball players go out on strike… Now there would be Russ Hodges – but no, he was dead – someone else – calling the games – Willie Mays, Bobby Bonds, it’s a windy one at Candlestick today…
Outside it was still light, the sun shining low, in long level streaks, lighting up blades of grass and the new leaves of the trees. Warm today, spring all of a sudden, birds singing outside, dandelions on all the lawns. Even Bella, who was not much of a hunter, had brought in a baby bird, perhaps a chance find, and laid it on the kitchen floor. She swept the thing into a dustpan and put it in the garbage can outside, as Bella followed, crouching at a distance, watching.
When she went back in the kitchen she made some toast for her father in case he got hungry while she was gone; timing her own frozen dinner she looked at the clock, moving around the kitchen, went to stand by the open back door, to listen to the birds outside. The house was quiet, as it never was, really. In the silence she thought of being in the kitchen when George was out on the patio, the sound of his feet as he walked back and forth, sometimes very late, sometimes after dark. She had never asked why he stayed out so late: it was their patio, their home, he could do as he liked. Sometimes they would go hiking, up in the hills, on tiny dirt paths twisting up and down, around boulders, and she would hear the scrape of his feet behind her. He would never go down steep slopes, or any way that looked dangerous or unstable, sometimes he even stayed where he was, refusing to proceed, while she laughed, sliding or crawling down, urging him on. This never worked, laughing at him only made it worse. I think he’ll be home soon, she had said to Dana and Father Paul. She knew she had wanted this to be true, and that was why she had said it, but she was not in the habit of saying untrue things, even for good reasons, and so it annoyed her.
The Cadette troop met in a Baptist church, in the modern annex, brick and large glass windows, behind the original church. When she drove up some of the girls were already in the parking lot: Carol and Roberta, her two patrol leaders, and Terry, the troop scribe. They were wearing their uniforms, white blouses and green skirts, sashes, too, but not the berets – they never wore their berets in public, unless they had to. They were standing by the juniper bushes near the door, batting at each other with their bare arms, in some adolescent girl scrum, but when she got out of the car, Carol turned and called:
The others echoed her. Hi, Yvonne! Unlocking the door to the building, she said to Roberta:
“Where’s your beret?” Alone of the girls, Roberta sometimes wore hers.
“I lost it.”
“You’ll need it for the flag ceremony, at the City Council meeting next week.” She held the door open and let them inside.
“I don’t want to be in the flag ceremony,” Roberta said.
“No? Why not?”
Roberta shrugged. She had an Afro, small and becoming, and dark skin. There were three black girls in the troop, all in the same patrol. They had named it The Panthers, and Yvonne had said nothing, pretending not to see any significance in the name.
“There won’t really be that many people there,” she said, as they climbed the stairs to the second floor. “It’s just a city council meeting.”
Roberta shrugged again. Yvonne thought about her answer, that it sounded wrong, assumed that Roberta was shy about appearing in public. She said:
“Well, if you don’t want to, I can ask another girl.”
Roberta looked down at the floor. Carol and Terry had gone ahead into the meeting room and were turning on the lights. “Nah, I guess I’ll do it.” She ran across the room to where they were setting up folding chairs.
The Cadettes were 11-14 years old. Perhaps half the girls who had been Juniors dropped out by the time they could become Cadettes; the ones left still had the brightness of childhood about them, or else something reluctant and confused. She could almost guess the ones who would depart at the end of the year, becoming thankfully adolescent, smoother, sleeker, no longer needing any guidance beyond those of their peers.
She opened the cabinet and took out the container with the macramé supplies, handing it to Carol. The macramé bracelets and the Panthers’ project, knitting baby blankets for a local hospital, were bad-weather projects, started in the winter. She hoped to finish them up today.
“Did you ask your mother about the hot dog buns?” she asked Carol.
“Yeah, she’s got some frozen ones. She’s going to thaw them out,” Carol said.
Yvonne thought the buns wouldn’t be very good thawed out, but she could hardly tell Carol’s mother to buy fresh ones. Carol’s mother froze everything: they had one of those big freezers, in which she kept meat she bought in bulk from a wholesaler in Antioch. It was probably a Bollich freezer, at that.
“You’re going to get this finished up today, right?” she said. “And did you do a Kaper chart for the picnic?”
“I’ll do one,” Terry said.
The other girls were coming in; Beverly and Beth among them. Beverly, instead of making for her usual chair, sat in the one on the very end of the circle, next to the door. This was enough to cause comment.
“I don’t feel like sitting in my regular seat,” she said. “I’m depressed today.” She put her chin in her hand, resting her other arm on the back of the chair.
This was batted around a bit; everyone wanted to know why. Beverly said she had gotten a B on a math test. Beth, her best friend, said:
“No you didn’t, you got an A, I saw it.”
“I don’t know then,” Beverly said. She let go of her pose and slid down in the chair, looking at her feet, not bothering to excuse the fact that she had lied about her grade. “I’m just depressed by the state of the world, I guess.”
Yvonne got the meeting started. It was usual to ask one of the girls to do something to open the meeting, sing a song, recite a poem. Beverly, sitting up, said she could recite the Greek alphabet. She had learned it from her older sister, who was in a sorority. She stood up and reeled it off, alpha, beta, gamma, delta… Yvonne listened, not knowing if any of it was right, although Beverly, conscientiously, stopped once, faltering, and corrected herself.
“It’s mostly like the English alphabet,” Beverly said when she sat down. “You only have to learn a few places, once you understand that.”
Beverly was famous for, if you could be famous for such a thing, her long brown hair. Most of the girls had long hair, far longer than in her day; it had crept down, like the boys’ had, and was generally worn hanging straight, or pushed behind the ears. But Beverly’s was the longest, long enough to sit on, dark brown, but not too dark, with a shine to it – what ballads called “nut brown hair” perhaps, for it could never be mistaken for the plain brown hair of most of the rest of the population. She claimed she hadn’t cut it since she was eight years old; it was neatly trimmed at the ends, however, shiny, perfectly straight, flowing down her back or over her shoulders in long lines. Beverly reminded Yvonne of girls she had seen dancing on the floor of the Fillmore and other clubs, all limbs and hair, girls whom everyone stepped aside to make way for, to watch them just dancing by themselves, moved by the music into a space that was all their own. So she would be in a few years, probably, but right now she did not know it yet, she still blinked, fresh, smiled, looked to others for reassurance and admiration.
Yvonne walked around the room as the girls worked. Deanne, one of the Panthers, held up a blanket, showing her the large loops along the edge.
“You can fix that a little when you’re done,” Yvonne said, pulling at the yarn, “Even the tension out. When you block it, it won’t look so bad. You know how to block it?” She explained, laying the blanket flat, stretching it out, to show her. Deanne was one of the youngest girls, small, pale, freckles and light eyelashes, never contributing much. She nodded, but Yvonne was not sure if she really understood.
She looked across the room at the other group, where Beverly was using her teeth to tighten a bracelet. They would be done before this group. When she was a Cadette the emphasis had been on getting badges, learning about nature or acquiring a skill. Nowadays, though the girls did not mind earning badges for participating in some activity, they seemed to feel that pursuing badges was for Juniors. She had taught some of them knitting – some of them already knew how -- over the winter because of something remembered from her own childhood. She had been taught not by her mother or grandmother but by a bored Home Ec teacher, Mrs. McElheney. She had stayed late in the afternoons (it was the year after her mother left) in the Home Ec room, trying to manage the needles in her small hands, as Mrs. McElheney, knitting too, talked on and on about what seemed to Yvonne inconsequential things: school gossip, movie stars, crime. And Yvonne had liked this, because it was not Boethius or Plotinus; her father and George were never interested in politics or what might be called current events, really the daily chitchat, mostly personality-related, that appeared in newspapers and magazines. So she learned about Marilyn Monroe and Yves Montand, Jimmy Stewart in Anatomy of a Murder, and Fidel Castro, whose name would always be associated for her with the stuffy atmosphere of the Home Ec Room, with its sewing machines and bolts of calico prints, as she undid rows of a bloated scarf, trying to get back to the place where it had gone wrong.
She had liked – no, she had loved – those days, though it was difficult to think about them now, other awarenesses being laid over them, for instance, that those afternoons were a bright spot in a very long lonely time, something she would have denied while it was going on. She remembered a day when a bad storm was expected, with the possibility of flooding or mudslides, and Mrs. McElheney had thought she’d better go straight home instead of staying after school. She had, but she had cried on the way home, gasping for air as the rain hit her face, hating herself, knowing it was silly to cry, that it didn’t matter; the scene now a symbol to her of that time of confusion, emotions she could barely name, much less control, all awash together.
“Beverly,” she said, “Is your mother going to be able to help drive on Sunday?”
“I think so. She said she’ll call you.”
That meant she would call on Saturday night, or early Sunday morning, possibly to say she couldn’t pick up any of the girls except Beverly and Beth. Four girls could go in her own VW, Yvonne thought, no more; she pictured them squished together, with the hot dogs and other picnic things. She asked Deanne:
“Does your mother drive?”
Deanne nodded. After some further prodding she gave up her mother’s name and that it would be OK to call her. Yvonne walked around again; the girls talked. It was dark outside the rectangular windows of the church annex; inside the girls were moving about, picking things up, putting them away, Beverly saying something, leaning over so her cheek was almost touching the table. I’ll have to think about it, she drawled. Looking at the clock, surprised, only ten minutes left in the meeting, Yvonne thought that she had never directly provided for these girls what Mrs. McElheney had for her, not just companionship but a sense of intelligent management of the world, of trivial things occupying their rightful places. The girls did not seem to need anything like that. They asked nothing from her, really; they were not even interested in anything about her, except to ask whether she had a boyfriend.
She collected the blankets, offering to bind off any that hadn’t been finished yet. They piled up, small rectangles of varying sizes and colors.
“Yvonne,” Roberta called, holding up her finished blanket. She flattened it out as she had Deanne’s; it was the best of any of them, with neat edges, the yarn blue with some flecks of brown in it.
“I’m going to do another one,” Roberta said, “I got some red yarn from my grandma.”
“They’re for the babies, right?” Deanne asked.
“Yes, the ones in the incubators.” She smoothed the blankets, balancing the ones that still had needles and yarn attached, and Roberta helped her put them in a paper grocery bag. They would be all tangled together but she would untangle them, next week.
On Wednesday her father stayed home again but when she got home from work he had come downstairs and was sitting in his robe watching tv. He ate dinner with her, confining himself to toast and soup. On Thursday he went to his office, calling later to tell her that he would like to bring a graduate student home for dinner, assuring her the student was not a vegetarian, which had been a problem in the past. She bought asparagus, since it was fresh in the grocery store, and made a chicken casserole. The student, Kenneth, was one she had met before, a quiet man, around her age, from Mississippi. He had dark skin, like Roberta, and a relatively short Afro, wore a suit and tie, and helped her with the dishes, after they had had a long conversation about Francois Truffaut during the dinner. They had been going to the same movies for years, perhaps, downtown, and never noticed each other. One out of every three grad students helped with the dishes, not knowing it was actually her father’s task, sometimes as a way of impressing her father, sometimes out of a genuine desire to help. She thought Kenneth was genuine. After dinner they all sat in the living room, talking about the war, Kissinger, which Democratic candidate had the best chance against Nixon, after-dinner conversation in living rooms all across the country. Her father turned the subject, eventually, to Kenneth’s opinion of some of the other grad students, then to the more modern French philosophers. Kenneth did not stay late, putting on his coat and shaking her hand, murmuring, thank you so much for dinner.
“Are you still going to protest on Saturday?” her father asked, as she came back into the living room.
“Yes.” She sat back down, pulling a section of newspaper off the coffee table and turning it to the back, to the comics, though she did not immediately read them. She was thinking of Kenneth, an automatic thought, as with Father Paul, wondering if there were anything there. She thought perhaps there was – she was used to measuring things, as with a pencil and ruler, she could always sense. But there was so much against it, as well.
“Don’t forget it’s your mother’s birthday.”
“I won’t. I won’t be late.” She wasn’t sure if this was true, but better not to go into it. She wondered if she would ever grow out of this habit, the hope, drawn from nearly every book or tv show, that love could occur in the strangest of circumstances. Those tv shows she used to watch with George, black and white dramas, sometimes intense, featuring those New York City stage actresses, not always pretty. If only life could be lived in the tv box.
“What are you trying to stop, exactly, this time?”
She had told him this before, but she went through it again. Bollich, cluster bombs, Nixon. As she spoke, Bella came in from the kitchen, where she had been hiding while a stranger was in the house, hesitated as usual, looking at them, then ran by to go upstairs, in spite of Yvonne trying to coax her over. Even more than George, Yvonne thought, Bella was addicted to routine.
“The campuses are going to come out, too,” she said. “There’s a big rally in San Francisco, and one in LA next week.”
She looked at the comics, starting with Li’l Abner, which she had not read in several days. Some new plot must have begun, because she could not figure out what was going on. Her father said:
“If you’re so concerned about the war, I would think you’d also feel something about working for what is essentially an arm of a right-wing government.”
She put the paper down. “It’s not an arm of a right-wing government. It’s Hellenic Exports – that’s what it says on the check.”
Her father shook his head. “In countries like that, the government has its fingers in everything. You don’t get anything unless you’re on their side.”
“That doesn’t mean it’s funded by the government.”
He waved a hand in dismissal. “It’s how those countries work. A holding company, a shell company.”
“You can’t say that for sure,” she said. She was thinking of Mr. Hakalis, sitting at his desk, looking worried. And the King being knocked back and forth. He was a fake-looking King, a Ruritanian king. She was disgusted, suddenly, by all that kind of thing, fake kings, juntas, companies that made both thermostats and bombs. “Anyway,” she went on, “it’s not like they sell things that kill people. It’s just cheese and olive oil.”
“It’s still a government that holds people in jail, dissidents, whatever you call them, without charges. With no free elections.”
“Well, what do you want me to do? Go out and find something totally clean to work for?” She thought of the companies near the port, major corporations, shipping things around the world, good and bad, without consideration.
“I’m not telling you what to do,” he said. “I’m just pointing out the discrepancy.”
She wondered if he really meant this. Her father had preferred, through the era of loyalty oaths and Red-baiting, to stay away from any stated positions. She had always thought this was because he considered his work, his ability to write, of utmost importance, and would not compromise it by becoming involved in something else. Perhaps it was Plotinus, too, and Plato, the cave of shadows, that material world without substance, not to be relied on for happiness. But she had nothing like that, nothing like his work, in her life. And it seemed too early in her life to give up, to say there was no substance to anything.
“You can’t say I don’t meet people my own age,” she said, “as long as you bring students home.” This was changing the subject, but she saw nowhere else to go.
“I bring students home because my professors did the same for me, when I was a student. I would bring them home even if you weren’t here.” He paused a moment, perhaps re-considering this statement. “Or I’d take them out to eat.”
“Would you like it if I married Kenneth?”
“I wouldn’t care whom you married, if was your choice.”
“What if I don’t get married?”
He looked up. “If you don’t get married, you should still be able to start a life of your own. Who ever said anything about getting married, anyway?”
“It’s what you mean,” she said, in a low voice, then added, “But isn’t this my life? What’s wrong with it?”
Her father didn’t answer. If he didn’t answer, there was nothing more to say, it would only be the same argument, over and over, in which she said increasingly random things, hoping for something to change. This was about George, perhaps. Her father probably expected him not just to come home, but to stay: she, at least, was being offered the chance to leave, a trade-off in his mind. She looked at Li’l Abner again, as if the sense of it might have revealed itself, Salomey the Pig and Mammy Yokum, exclamation points flying out of mouths, a kind of cipher now, not just something she did not understand but something that had become unimportant.
“I’ll be home a little late tomorrow,” she said. “I have to go to the store and get stuff for the picnic on Sunday.”
“The Cadettes. We’re cooking hot dogs in Lagoon Park.”
Her father nodded. He had nothing in particular to say about the Cadettes. “So you’re not going out there on Sunday?”
“No. I told George last week I couldn’t come.” She bent down, folding up the newspaper and putting it back on the table, the gulf bridged, the night just like any other night, now.
Marches always had the same feeling. They often began late. People were still arriving; there were buses, further down Seventh, men and women still filing off them. Yvonne had gotten there early, as she always did, had found Dana and the others in the crowd. Father Paul had gone off somewhere now, to find someone who knew something. She and Dana were standing on the curb, talking, in a vague way, about their mothers.
“She was more fond of Bernie than I was,” Dana said. “She certainly misses him more than I do.” She held out a bag of carrot sticks and Yvonne took some. She was thinking about being a child, hearing her mother in the living room talking to her friends, the way her voice stretched out, trying to impress them. A purposeful voice, like she never used to the family, trying to fit in. Sometimes she still heard that voice, in the house in Mexico, when her mother spoke to the servants.
The crowd was still loose, around them. People were circulating, talking, moving on. Men in Army jackets, men in dashikis. Girls who a few years ago would have been wearing minidresses were now mostly in jeans. Bandanas, small round sunglasses, hemp bracelets, a slow parade of girls and boys, arm in arm; behind them a knot of nuns, bunched together, wearing the shorter habits nuns wore nowadays, gray hair visible beneath their abbreviated veils. Someone was playing a flute, hooting on it, in the distance. A group from the Methodist church had the CPFV banner; they raised it up, held it for a few minutes, and brought it back down. There were posters on the ground, for all sorts of groups; theirs, which she and Dana had made on Friday night, using Anne’s tempera paints, were in a pile a few feet away.
Yvonne took another carrot.
“Should we be eating them so early?” she asked. Dana shrugged. They were watching Father Paul in the crowd. He had been making their way back towards them, now he was talking to a blonde woman in a peasant blouse. Not someone in CFPV; Yvonne didn’t recognize her. Father Paul was wearing his collar, as he often did at protests, and a large, almost ungainly, wooden cross around his neck. As she watched, Father Paul lifted his hand, saying goodbye to the woman, who turned away, her skirt flaring.
“There’s a couple of groups still coming from Hayward,” he said, when he came over to them. “Their bus broke down.”
Leonard and some of the other CFPV members had come over and were picking up the posters. Yvonne, anticipating that the march might start soon, took one, too. They had used popsicle sticks, taped together, to support the posters. It was sunny, it would be a nice day; there was a breeze off the water. The noise of the crowd had grown; the hooting of the flute had become music and chanting.
Movement began slowly. The crowd inched forward, people bumping each other, then it began to spread out; posters held high, banners raised. Father Paul walked ahead of them, with an easy motion, sometimes, along with the rest of the crowd, raising his fist into the air. They filed, in their disorderly line, past the small houses of West Oakland. People came out to watch on one side of the street; on the other were the concrete pillars of a new BART line, an urban renewal project, like the post office beyond it, for which blocks of homes had been knocked down. The street was bleak, stores boarded up, iron grilles on the windows.
Memories of past marches came back, as she walked. The rhythm of feet on the pavement, the noise, the sun shining on her shoulders and back: the feeling of movement, putting something forth, together, camaraderie. Some of the young men watching from the streets were Black Panthers; they looked on impassively, but occasionally one would nod at a member in the crowd, or go up and talk to someone in it. Some of the side streets had police cars parked on them, with officers inside. She was not sure if they were there to patrol the neighborhood or because of the march. At any rate, up ahead would be the county cops, who were much worse. Once Father Paul put a hand on her shoulder, pointing at two men sitting in a parked car.
“Say hi to Mr. Hoover’s boys,” he said.
In a few more blocks they came to the Naval Supply Center. It was large compound, stretching along the water, identical huge rectangular buildings, spaced out, street after street, surrounded by railroad sidings, on which long lines of Southern Pacific freight cars sat. Beyond all it lay the harbor, invisible except for the silhouettes of cranes in the distance. The street widened, by the gates; there was a guardhouse surrounded by chain link fences. The gates were open, two supply trucks idling there; as the marchers approached they passed through, turning down the street away from the crowd. County police cars were lined up, blocking one side of the road; a row of cops standing alongside them. Yvonne noticed that some of them were holding gas masks.
Coming to a stop by the gates, the crowd milled about, backing up towards the freeway overpass, where cars were zipping by. Someone began to sing, “Give Peace a Chance.” Yvonne found herself linking arms with two women she did not know; they sang, swaying back and forth. It sounded kind of dismal, like groaning. The Methodists were holding up the CFPV banner, waving it; from somewhere in the back movement increased, pushing the front edge of the crowd towards the cops, who pushed it back in turn, advancing with riot shields held out. Watching this, Yvonne had a bad feeling in her stomach, as she had when she had seen the gas masks. They had a right to be here, she told herself, it was important, it was about children’s lives.
Some protestors had gone up to the guardhouse and were talking to the guard inside, giving him pamphlets. Others had begun lying down around the gate, blocking the entrance. Seeing Father Paul, Yvonne broke away from the two women, catching up to him. Dana didn’t seem to be around. Father Paul lay down, and she handed her sign to someone and lay down, too, right behind him. Gravel dug into her knees and the palms of her hands. The road was covered with trash, seagull feathers and oil stains. She had not thought of how dirty it would be; she tried not to put her face directly against the pavement. Lying there out in the open, the huge sky above, the sense that she was somewhere she should not be, disturbed her. She thought of people in Vietnam, lying in ditches, bombs falling on them, and drew a deep breath.
The police were saying something she could not hear through their bullhorns. For some time after that she was could not tell what was happening. The canteen was heavy against her back and she shifted it, hearing the water slosh, then she took off her glasses and put them carefully, in their case, in the pocket of her jeans. There were people lying down all around her now. The police were speaking through bullhorns again. The wind flapped a piece of paper against her shoulder, and she wriggled to get it away. There was a sharp pop, close by, which she recognized as the firing of a tear gas canister. She could immediately smell it, stinging, peppery, and pulled up her arm to cover her nose. More pops. All around her people began to get up from the pavement, and she did, too. Thick white smoke was spewing, the air heavy, choking. She tried to stay near Father Paul. People were shapes in the smoke, moving randomly, cops among them, gas masks giving them elephant profiles, hands clutching raised batons. She sensed, rather than saw, the one beside her, felt Father Paul suddenly yank her forward by her arm, as a blow descended on her back.
Pop, pop, pop…
She could not see. Her eyes were burning, like they were melting out of their sockets; she thought of the atomic bomb victims, was terrified that this was what was happening. She had been tear-gassed before, but it had only made her nose run, nothing like this. She took several steps forward and ran into something large and hard, something that forced her back. She could not figure out what it was, and this was the deepest part of panic, that everything was so unfamiliar, that, obvious as it seemed, she did not know how to walk without being able to see where she was going. She tried to move in a different direction, ran into the same hard thing, only smaller, so she fell over the top of it. A hand pulled her up. In her anxiety she charged into this person, was steadied briefly. Until that moment she might have been deaf as well as blind; now suddenly she heard a cacophony around her: screaming, loud coughing, the blachh, blachh of retching. Blows were falling, sticks heavy against bodies, cursing, yelling. She stood still, frightened, but the hand guided her, step by step, then fell away suddenly, gone. She was still coughing, wanting to pull at, to rub her eyes, trying to resist the urge. She found a shoulder, gripped it, was pulled along with the crowd, the shouting and yelling still all around, people pressing into her. The shoulder moved faster and she lost it, walked with her hands in front of her, waving them, thinking again of her eyes damaged, she would be blind the rest of her life, what would her father say? She remembered it was her mother’s birthday, too.
Another hand, on her elbow, reaching for the canteen. She moved, but a voice said:
“It’s OK. Stand still.”
Dana. She stood still, and Dana lifted the canteen over her head. She had been wearing it all along, and forgotten about it, though she did not think she would have been able to open it, or find her bandana, without sight. Something soft and wet touched her eyes.
“Come on,” Dana said, a wheeze in her voice, taking her hand; Yvonne walked, slowly, holding the cool, wet bandana to her face.
When she could see again, she was sitting on a curb. Dana had led her there; she sat with the fabric to her face. Every breath stung, a poking, peppery feeling, choking her lungs. She opened her eyes slowly, then more: they were intact, she realized, it was the lids that had shut. Dana, her shirt front pulled up over her nose, was looking at her closely. Beyond her, in the street, blurry figures moved. Whatever had happened was mostly over: the figures were moving in a steady stream back towards the center of Oakland. She craned her head back and saw a man standing nearby, looking at them, an older man, with a bit of a belly; she thought he was probably a resident of West Oakland. He was looking at them with a kind of helpless distaste, as you might look at debris that a storm had washed into your yard. Then he hitched his belt up and moved away. She bent over to wipe her eyes on her shirt, but Dana pushed her hand back.
“Don’t, that makes it worse,” she said. The shirt would be saturated with tear gas.
She could see a little better now. Small ragged groups, some of them supporting injured people, a man hobbling, a woman with blood on her face. She saw the nuns again, their circle disturbed, looking for someone, pointing, looking back over their shoulders.
“Where’s Father Paul?” she asked.
“I don’t know,” Dana said. “I haven’t seen him since we started running.”
“You haven’t seen him?”
“No, not at all.”
An idea came to her, probably because she had heard the readings so recently, of the Gospel, the women at the tomb. They have taken my Master’s body and I do not know where they have laid it… She remembered him pulling her arm, yanking her away from the cop. She had not felt it until now, but her back hurt where the blow had fallen. “Let’s find him.”
She stood up, shakily, helped by Dana. The man who had been watching them had come back out into the yard. He was holding a white plastic bucket; water shone inside. A boy stood next to him, a towel scrunched up in his hands.
Later Yvonne would remember that she and Dana had not said anything at all at this sight, did not make any kind of comment, or even thank the man; they just plunged their hands into the bucket and splashed their faces. Soap bubbled on top of the water, grime from the street came off from her hands.
“Go on,” the man said. “It’s the best thing.” The boy shoved the towel at them, and she bent and dried her face.
When they were done they began to walk. There was still the smell of tear gas in the air; she and Dana turned once or twice to cough, and she had remember again not to touch her shirt.
She found her glasses in her pocket and put them back on. A few times they saw someone they recognized, and asked after Father Paul, but no one knew anything. Just beyond the post office a county police car was parked, with a cop outside out. She and Dana turned their heads, as if the car had nothing to do with them, and walked as quickly as they could past it.
After this they saw Leonard, and some of the members of his church. Their group had drawn together, around a woman who was holding her side.
“I never saw anything like that,” Leonard said, “It was wanton brutality. They broke Ruth’s rib.”
“We’re not sure it’s broken,” one of the women said.
“Have you seen Father Paul?” Dana asked.
“No.” He made a motion of looking around. “I wish I could say that I had, but… I never saw anything like that. I was prepared to be arrested, but not this.” He looked at them, more directly. “I’ll try to find out something, if I can.”
“Thank you,” Dana said.
“Are you two all right?”
“Yeah,” Dana said. “Yvonne got tear gas in her eyes, real bad, for a while. I was just wheezing. The wind blew most of it away.”
“I’m OK now,” Yvonne said. She realized with shame she had never asked Dana if she was injured. The blindness had been so disrupting, so frightening, that she had not thought of anything else.
Later they went to see Father Paul in the emergency room. They had been told, by someone from the Oakland branch, that he had a broken arm, and had been taken away in an ambulance. They drove to the Oakland hospital, a large, old, white stucco building. There were a lot of people in the ER. Yvonne did not think that an ER, on a Saturday afternoon, would normally be so crowded, so some of them must have been from the protest. Some older people, men and women with sullen looks and folded arms, were sitting in the small plastic chairs along the walls. Others, those from the protest, were standing in the entryway and hallways, huddled together, some of them smoking, although there was a No Smoking sign on the wall. It was impossible to tell who was there for injuries and who was accompanying an injured person. They stepped over a girl who was lying on the floor, a wet cloth on her head. There was a long line at the information desk. Even here there was a smell of tear gas, brought in on people’s clothes, perhaps.
She and Dana moved along the edge of the crowd and found Father Paul leaning against the wall in a side hallway, by the X-Ray department. He had one arm in a sling, but he smiled and waved at them.
“Are you all right?” Dana asked.
He shrugged, looking down at his wrist. “I’m OK. They gave me something for the pain. I’m waiting to go into X-ray, whenever they call me. Otherwise, it was a pretty good day, wasn’t it?” He laughed, and they echoed him, thought they were not sure why. “Are you both OK?”
“It wasn’t that bad,” Dana said. “Just some tear gas.”
Yvonne felt her fear, those long reeling moments, diminished now down to a mistake, a misapprehension. She thought again of Father Paul pulling on her arm but did not say anything.
They decided to stay, so they could give Father Paul a ride back to his car. At first they stood against the wall, but later they were able to find chairs. The X-Ray department was behind a glass window, at which a nurse in a white cap worked, not glancing up at them. Father Paul was eventually called in and was gone for what seemed like a long time. Yvonne looked up at the clock. It was long past three.
“It’s my mother’s birthday,” she said to Dana. “I was supposed to call her.” Her father had probably called anyway. Her mother, in the Mexican house, those dark rooms, with their mirrors.
“I should call my neighbor,” Dana said. “She’s watching Anne.” There was a pay phone down the hall, but a girl was using it.
The adrenaline had faded now. Yvonne became aware that she was tired, that her legs and feet hurt, that she felt sweaty and sticky. She got up and went down the hall to the restroom. She washed her hands and face again, pumping pink soap out of the dispenser, and then drying herself with paper towels. She pulled her shirt off and flung it on the floor, then put the extra t-shirt on, turning, just before she pulled it down, to look at her back. She thought there was a bruise, but it was hard to tell. A glancing blow, that was what you would call it. Just a glancing blow. She threw the old shirt in the trash and washed her hands again. There was an idea of invisible contamination with the tear gas, that she would never be able to get it entirely off, it might be on anything she had touched. She seemed to smell it even as she went back into the hall.
When she got home her father was in the living room. She closed the door, almost too tired to speak, though she had prepared what she was going to say.
“I’m sorry,” she said, as he got up from the armchair. “We had some trouble at the march, and I had to go to the hospital to find Father Paul. It got kind of late. Did you call Mom?”
She could tell from his face that he smelled the tear gas. He had sort of a dazed, horror-struck look on his face, which she felt was excessive, since she was standing there before him, obviously OK.
“Are you all right?” he asked.
“Yes.” She paused a minute. “I was tear-gassed, I couldn’t see, but I’m OK now. Father Paul has a broken wrist.”
“Was anyone else hurt?”
“Some people were. I don’t know how seriously. A policeman hit me with a club, on the back, but it was just a glancing blow.”
He was looking away now, not angry, but disgusted by the fleshliness of it all, disappointed in her, perhaps.
“So they chased you all away,” he said, finally.
“Yes, they chased us all away. But…”
“But…” She was not sure what she wanted to say. “But it goes on. It goes on. We have to do it, so the war will end.”
“You’ll never stop it,” he said. He was looking at her closely now. He was not the type of father who had ever been histrionic, who might say now, you could have been killed. She realized now that she could have been killed. People had been killed at demonstrations, the police always excused from any responsibility, names and faces later forgotten, except by friends.
Because he did not say it, she stepped aside as if she was going upstairs. Before she got there, he said:
“Dr. Wu called, about an hour ago, from the hospital.”
For a moment she was confused, still thinking of the hospital in Oakland. Then she recognized the name. “Dr. Wu? Did something happen?”
“George left the grounds without permission.”
It was almost more than she could take in. “Where did he go?”
“They’re allowed to go out,” she interrupted. “Some of them are.”
“I guess so, but George isn’t one of those. And he left without signing out.”
He had gone just a few blocks to a restaurant, sat there over a single cup of coffee, refused to leave, unable to pay, until finally the police were called. Everything had been very orderly, the police already knew he was gone from the hospital, and he had been taken back there.
“It’s really not that big a deal,” she said, when her father explained all this. “He probably just got bored.”
“Perhaps,” he said. “Anyway, Dr. Wu thought it would be a good idea to meet tomorrow and talk about it.”
“Oh.” She slipped her purse off her shoulder and put it on the floor. “I’ll have to call the girls tonight -- we can do the picnic next week.”
“No,” he said. “I’ll drive up there. I said I would.”
“Yes. I – well, I knew you had things planned. Anyway, I had a long talk with the doctor about George’s prognosis. I’d like to meet him.”
She did not know what to say. Dr. Wu was one of the young doctors, a resident; he might talk all he wanted but he would be gone in a few months. Her father did not know these things… But she did not say this. She did not say anything. She put her purse back over her shoulder and went upstairs.
In her room she turned on the radio. “I Want You Back,” was playing, the singer’s falsetto voice, rising, purely joyful, let me show you, girl, that I know wrong from right, and she stood listening, feeling whole, happy. It was a free-floating feeling that had no relation to what she had been through that day, and seemed all the more valuable for that, as if all the brutality and ugliness had been transmuted into the unexpected gold of freedom, of certain things made unimportant. She thought of all the strangers’ hands she had held, in her darkness, of the man and the boy with the bucket of water.
When she went back downstairs she suggested picking up hamburgers for dinner, but in the end they ordered pizza.
“I put on the lighter fluid, Yvonne.”
Roberta was standing next to the barbeque, holding the box of matches, her eyes narrowed, waiting for Yvonne to quit fussing with the hamburger buns.
“OK,” Yvonne said. “You can go ahead.” Roberta knew correct procedure for lighting the charcoal; she did not need monitoring. “Where’s the ketchup?”
“Beverly’s bringing all that stuff,” Carol said.
Roberta struck the match, her hand, somewhere between confident and nervous, pressing down too hard and breaking the head. She gave all those watching a quick glance, as if assigning them the blame for this, dropped the broken match in with the charcoal briquettes, and lit the second one successfully. An edge of flame danced up, from which she stepped back and put the grate down.
“It’ll be OK now,” she said to the girl next to her. “Don’t mess with it.”
Yvonne came over to look. From the shade of the picnic shelter everything beyond seemed to be blazing in the sun: the grass especially bright green. A station wagon had pulled into the parking lot; the back door was open, and two figures could be seen unloading bags from it.
“That must be Beverly and Beth.” Beverly’s mother had called last night, as predicted, to say she could only bring the two girls. With the help of Deeanne’s mother, Yvonne had been able to shift everyone around.
They came across the grass now, holding grocery bags. Beverly had something on her head, some kind of scarf; she walked slowly, trailing behind Beth. When she got to the shelter she went straight to the table and put her bag on it, then sat down, her lower lip trembling. The scarf on her head was coarse and white, too unattractive for someone like Beverly to actually wear. A few strands of brown hair, disarranged, stuck out beneath it.
Amid the what happeneds? Beverly looked down, twisting her hands, until Beth said:
“She got her hair cut!”
“Yeah! She got it all cut off!”
“Is it bad?”
“Why did you do it? What happened?”
Yvonne watched as closely as the girls did, concerned. Beverly put her hands to her head, shaking it back and forth. Then Beth suddenly reached over and somehow pulled the scarf off. Beverly’s head dipped, she came up laughing. The brown hair fell down all around her shoulders, untouched.
“Just kidding!” Beth said.
There was the usual reaction: some girls surprised, some pretending disgust, moving away, others said they had known it had to be a joke all along. Beverly laughed and laughed, clasping a knee, her shoulders shaking. She looked up at Yvonne, still giggling.
“We brought Hershey bars and graham crackers,” she said, “So we can do s’mores.”
“I brought some, too,” Yvonne said. “So we have plenty.” She felt she ought to say something about the joke. But it had put everyone in a good mood; it was clear they did not mind, perhaps because of some relief that Beverly’s hair had not actually been cut off. It was communal property, Yvonne thought, that shining hair, Beverly herself. Perhaps this was a problem, too, but for now it didn’t bother anyone.
The girls were unloading Beverly and Beth’s bags, setting aside the potato chips and lining up the ketchup, mustard, pickle relish; Beverly put the Hershey bars in the cooler so they wouldn’t melt. There was free time, now, until the charcoal was hot: by ones and twos they went off, mostly down to the lagoon to ride the paddleboats. Yvonne, left alone, walked around the tables, moving things here and there, loosening the top of the pickle relish, since it was a new jar. Then she opened one of the potato chip bags and sat down.
Roberta was coming back up the slope. Yvonne thought, from the way she was walking, that she probably had a complaint about something: no paddleboats left, or that another girl had done or said something to her. She watched her come closer, waiting to see what it would be. Roberta came up and stood exactly in front of her. Without any other opening, she said:
“I don’t want to do the City Council meeting.”
“You already told me that,” Yvonne said. She pushed the potato chip bag towards Roberta, who sat down next to her, folding her long legs. “I thought we settled it.”
“Beverly can do it.”
“Beverly’s done it before. A bunch of times. I like everyone to have a turn.”
Roberta did not answer for a moment. Yvonne looked at the sun on the grass, waiting to hear what she had to say. Deanne and some of the younger girls were picking clover flowers, twining their long stems together. She was ready to let Roberta off, without further discussion, when the girl said:
“I don’t want to carry the flag. I don’t want to carry it up there and salute it.” She set her mouth, sitting up and swinging her legs as she spoke.
Roberta explained, still sitting up straight, in choppy sentences, yet with some sincerity. Her uncle was in Soledad, considered himself a political prisoner. Her father had been inside, too, was associated in some way with the Black Panthers. She wondered if there was parental influence, but Roberta sounded upset, as upset as teenagers could be about injustice, mentioning Nixon, George Wallace, the cops in her neighborhood. Yet as Yvonne listened, she became annoyed. She had always liked the City Council meetings, in a mild way: the girls in their flat-iron neat uniforms, heads held high, walking in step bearing the American and Girl Scout flags; the attendees, who had mostly come to talk about traffic and litter, momentarily silenced by the patriotic choreography. She had carried the flag at a City Council meeting herself as a girl, around the year of Fidel Castro, and the council, then mostly male, had thanked her and Sue Carliss with handshakes and paternal smiles.
She sat up, feeling the ache of the bruise of her back, thought that she was being a hypocrite. Certainly she considered that she had the right to protest, to stand up for her beliefs, that went almost without saying. But she did not want Roberta to do the same. She wanted Roberta to hold up her head and march down the aisle of the City Council meeting room, proudly carrying the flag. She did not think there was a contradiction in this. She thought you could do both – that was the whole point.
“You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do,” she said. She was barely able to keep from adding, I think you’re wrong, but her voice gave her away, for Roberta narrowed her eyes, confused, seemed about to say something more, but also tempted by the idea that she ought to just take the permission she was offered.
“It’s OK?” she asked.
“It’s fine.” She hit the word with a particular emphasis, almost sarcastic, something she rarely used with the girls. “Why, I never make any of you do anything you don’t want to, do I?”
Roberta looked at her, some eagerness still in her face, but rapidly ebbing.
“OK,” she said. She turned her head, as if she had suddenly remembered the barbecue’s existence, then got up and went over to it, testing the heat by holding her hand over the grate. Yvonne knew this entire action was pretense, knew also that Roberta imagined that she was being clever, almost adult, in doing it. From the barbecue she looked back at Yvonne once, then went out into the sunshine. There was something deer-like about her figure, stepping across the grass, skinny, long-legged, going on to wherever she was going.
Yvonne did not move. She looked around the shelter, at the food, the plates and utensils, the edge of the tablecloth fluttering in the breeze. The girls had taped it down, the usual scrupulous attention to detail recommended by the Cadette handbook. She saw the girls as if she had never known them, as if their bright adolescent spirits were not some accessory to her life, but central to theirs, with a meaning she could never really penetrate. It had been so all along, of course. And if they were learning things, to be helpful, efficient, steady, it was to bear these things into their own futures, however strange and disappointing they might be. She saw them: Roberta, striving, never quite overcoming the obstacles, Beverly triumphant, struggling for stability, Carol and Terry, like herself, absorbed in the stuff of their own lives, seduced a little by it, too close to know what it all meant. She tried to rouse herself from this line of thought – silly imaginings, drawn from tv and movies – but it persevered.
Deanne and the girls with her were still making clover crowns and necklaces, putting them on their heads and around their necks, laughing. A few years before, she thought, they would have been serious, diligent, transforming themselves into princesses, now it was a joke, at least partly, they were laughing at themselves, so as not to seem childish. Beverly, coming up the hill, swiped one of the crowns, draping it on her wrist, as she went over to the cooler. The girls howled, rocking back on their bottoms and kicking their legs in the air. As Beverly passed by them again, with two cans of Coke, one of them called out:
“Are you wearing lip gloss?”
Beverly turned back, smiling, said nothing; it was a silly question. Looking for Beth, Yvonne picked her out among the figures on the grass, standing near the lagoon, waiting for her Coke. Also among the figures was a man, ambling, in a slow line, towards the picnic shelter, one arm in a sling.
Yvonne stood up. For a moment she thought perhaps Father Paul was bringing a message, something about George – her father had gotten lost, maybe, from her hand-drawn map. Then she realized how unlikely this was. She looked around at the tables, crumpled up the top of the chips, pushing it in line with the others, and wiped her hands on her jeans. Father Paul, recognizing her from a distance, walked slightly faster, finally stepping into the shelter, to sidelong glances from Deanne and the other girls.
“Hi,” he said. “I was in the neighborhood, and I thought I’d stop by and see how you’re doing.”
She made him sit down, and asked about his wrist. He lifted it slightly, as he spoke, showing that one or two people had already signed the thick cast, which went all the way up to his elbow.
“There are some advantages to being left handed. Still, Father Gus is going to have to serve on Sundays for a while.”
“I didn’t get a chance to thank you,” she said, sitting down next to him. “About the cop.”
“He was going to hit me with the baton,” she said. “You pulled on my arm, you pulled me away.”
He thought a moment, and then shook his head. “I don’t remember that at all.”
“I do.” She thought of the gas-masks, in the white smoke. “He still hit me, but it was just a glancing blow.”
“Are you sure it was…” he let this trail off. “Well, I’m glad I was able to help.”
It had been a scene of confusion for him as well; he described moving with the crowd, covering his face from the tear gas, until he was pushed from behind, by whom he did not know. He had fallen on his outstretched hand, breaking his wrist.
“I don’t bear a grudge against them,” he said, about the police. “They’re doing their job, they all have families…”
“We weren’t doing anything wrong, either.” she said. This was arguable – after all they had been trespassing -- but she sensed the cops had been enjoying themselves, wading in with their batons. This made her think of Roberta, whom she did not want to think about. It was a shadow in her mind, an idea that there was something she could not remember, which had nevertheless spoiled the day.
“Well,” Father Paul said, “We’re probably going to come out again, next week. Do you still want to?”
She had told her father she’d go on, and she would. It did not seem to matter that she could no longer see a larger purpose in it, that the war, if it ever did stop, would probably be on Nixon’s terms, not theirs, that there might be so much ambiguity in the results that years later people would prefer not to look at it, it would just be too wearisome to think about. She saw it now as a small thing, one tossed on the waves, among a million other things which might also be worth doing. They spoke about the other protests yesterday, at the University and at Stanford, and at the Federal Building in San Francisco, where there had also been arrests and police beatings. She looked out at the park, at the girls, as they talked; it was a luxury, to have him to herself, no one else, particularly no Dana. But it was in her mind also that, though he had walked across the park towards her, he was not there to talk to her, he had nothing specific to say. When there was a lull in the conversation, a small silence which might have become longer, she told him the latest about George.
“My father said he would go up there to talk to the doctor. So that’s where he is.”
He nodded. “Is that a setback? Or do you think he wants to come home?
“I don’t know. He likes it there, sometimes. He understands how things work there.” It occurred to her again that she was saying something she really did not know to be true, that it was better, perhaps, to say she did not know, that whatever terror was in it she could handle. “I don’t think my father really expects him to ever leave home, even if he comes home. But he wants me to.”
“He wants you to leave home?”
“He thinks I should move out, get an apartment. I should start my own life, he says.”
Something in her tone must have come through, for she saw Father Paul, about to praise the idea, as people usually did, pull himself back.
“And you don’t want to do that?”
She shrugged. “I think this is my life.”
Father Paul did not answer. The words had sounded, to her, important. She tried to think how they might sound to him, sat, waiting, thinking, listening to the voices of the girls in the distance. She remembered a silent retreat Father Paul had once conducted, for certain interested members of the congregation, at which, after a reading from Psalms, they had sat with pieces of paper on the table in front of them, to write down their thoughts. She had sat there, listening to the traffic noise outside, to a sparrow chirping in the bushes under the window, not sure what to do. Every thought that passed through her brain seemed so obvious that it did not seem worthwhile to write down. She could not remember how long it had gone on, only the sunshine in the room (they had given up a Saturday morning for this), the sparrow chirping, and that she could make no sense of her own thoughts. She could make no more sense now, but it did not bother her as much.
The girls had begun to come back up to the shelter, the first fruits of their freedom gone, the lagoon explored, thirsty now, wondering if it was time to eat. The first ones to come in glanced at Father Paul and would have decided to pretend that he did not exist, but Yvonne introduced him. He stood up and shook their hands; Carol and Terry looked down, barely polite, clearly considering him not someone whom they could not fit into any conception they had of the world. Yvonne knew what the question would be, as soon as he was gone. Roberta came back, too; not until she was actually under the shelter did Yvonne see that she was holding up her arm, bent at the elbow.
“I got stung by a damn bee!” she said. She straightened out her arm, twisting it, trying to show Carol and Terry the spot. “I lay down and it was under my arm.”
“Where’s the first aid kit?” Yvonne asked, standing up. “There’s Lanacane in there.”
Roberta shook her head, moving towards the cooler. “Nah, it’s OK. I’ll put some ice on it.” She stood there, rubbing the ice over her dark skin just above her elbow, her face concentrated, disturbed.
“My mom puts baking soda on bee stings,” Carol said.
“That’s for jellyfish stings,” Terry said. “I got stung once, in Monterey. I didn’t know they could still sting you after they were dead, so I picked it up.” She looked around as she spoke, taking note of those paying attention, providing details as the other girls came in. “I had these little red things all over my arm the next day. My mother took me to the doctor and he gave me antihistamines and they made me sleepy.”
Roberta looked at her a moment, as if she wanted to say something scathing, as if the idea of being stung by a dead jellyfish was laughable, but she turned her head back without comment. The ice cube was melting; when it was nothing but water, she shook the drops off and walked over to the barbeque, taking charge of it.
“You can put the buns out,” she said to Deeanne, flexing her arm. Beverly and Beth were opening the unopened bags of chips, shaking out their contents into bowls. Yvonne, seeing the girls crowd in, moved back to the next table, to give them room to set up, and Father Paul followed. She was distracted from what they had been talking about, watching the girls moving around, lining up with their plates, their busyness, the way they worked together, talking; everyone now, it seemed, had been stung by something, wasps, yellow jackets, or knocked down by a wave, or almost struck by lightning. Something about it seemed to overpower Father Paul; he got up soon after, saying he had to go, and refused a hot dog, offered by Deeanne.
“What happened to your arm?” one of the girls asked.
“I fell on it,” he said, lifting it slightly again as he smiled. Yvonne saw, in this elision of the truth, that something about the girls made him nervous, their greater number, more likely their age.
She walked with him along the edge of the shelter, towards the parking lot.
“I’ll call you sometime this week,” he said. “About whatever’s going on on Saturday.”
“OK.” There was something interrupted in their talk, some missed chance. She had wanted him to see something in all of this, the picnic, the girls, something he could proclaim or bless, pronounce valuable.
“So, what do you think?” she asked.
“About what?” He paused, thinking. “Getting an apartment?”
“No. That this is my life. The way it is.”
“Of course it is,” he said. But there was confusion in his face, he was stating the obvious. She saw this, felt it was too simple, at least stated baldly like that. She did not know what she meant, now.
“I mean…” she said, but it was too simple, it was not to be put into words, it was George, it was the Cadettes, it was those things, they had some value, a value she could put on them, she did not have to accept the notion that these were unimportant, time-fillers, simply something to pass along until she got married, which she might never, or fulfilled some ambition, of which she had none. They were what she had been given. If this was to be it, she would have to value it in some way. Only no one else would, they would always overlook it, they would always be turning towards something, something they were supposed to be or to get to. She was not sure she liked this line of thought, entirely. It set the world in a peculiar kind of light, like a trick in which something seems to be more than it is. It was also kind of passive. Perhaps it was nothing more than a beginning.
They said goodbye; he raised his good hand, waving, as he walked towards the parking lot. When she went back under the shelter, Deeanne asked:
“Is he your boyfriend?”
“No.” Yvonne took a paper plate. The other girls had laughed at Deeanne’s boldness but she knew they were just as eager for the answer. She could feel them looking at her, judging the layers of truth in what she had said: he might not be a boyfriend now, but he could be a potential boyfriend, or a past one, or in some other category.
“He’s cute,” Roberta said.
“He’s not my boyfriend,” she repeated. “I don’t think he’s interested.”
She hoped the girls would not ask her what she meant by this, but the looks they turned on her told her that, for them, there was no such thing as not interested, that there was always hope, always daydreaming – most of them still boyfriendless themselves. Roberta plopped a hot dog onto Yvonne’s bun and she sat down with it and reached over for the mustard.
She was aware, as she ate, of feeling a certain ease with the girls, more than she had before. This might have been because, having seen Father Paul, their idea of her had been altered. She wondered if Father Paul really didn’t remember pulling her away from the cop. Perhaps he had said what he said just to turn her away, so she would not feel an obligation to him, or make more of it than it was. It did not matter much now. The girls were sprawling, resting, in the coolness of the shelter, looking out dreamily at the bright green grass and the glint of the sun off the lagoon. Carol’s small radio, lying on its back, the antenna angled towards the nearest open side of the shelter, played “I Want You Back”; Yvonne turned her head, surprised by the coincidence. The girls clapped along, shaking their shoulders. Roberta, the metal hot dog fork still in her hand, sketched a dance move, turning around, then stopped herself, waving off the others as they laughed. On any other day she would have gone on, Yvonne thought, but not today, perhaps.
She still thought that she should say something to Roberta, make her understand that she was wrong. She had never liked to do that with the girls. And that had been a mistake, probably – she had been blinded by the ideal of Mrs. McElheney. Now it was too late. The girls had never needed a mother. She was not sure, now, what they did need.
She remembered something she had read in an Agatha Christie novel – and who knew which novel it was, there were so many of them, and she had read one right after another. Something about a dentist, maybe, and some kind of political murder. At the end of it Hercule Poirot had said, have your new world. But let there be freedom and let there be mercy in it. Or some such phrase – maybe it was justice, not freedom. It had struck her, she had remembered it, perhaps because it wasn’t the sort of thing you expected to find in Agatha Christie.
Freedom and mercy. And now Roberta’s feelings were hurt. They would have to go on being hurt, because there was nothing Yvonne could say to her, it was a point of barrier, she realized, like the war, a point beyond which she could not control anything. Like a buoy out at sea, a barrier point where nothing could be captured or named, a place where you could not stay long, from which you would be tossed away again, battered and shaken. She had reached that point now. It struck her that most adults she knew, her father, Mr. Hakalis, had, too, at some time. Not Father Paul, perhaps. Nor George. But Roberta would. All of the girls might, in time.
The girls were getting up, gathering up trash, putting leftovers away. They wanted to get back out into the sun; they would come back later for the s’mores. Beverly and Beth said they were going out in the paddleboat again.
“We tried to tip it over out in the lagoon,” Beverly said, “But it wouldn’t tip.” They had wanted to make someone think they were drowning, the price, having to come splashing ashore, soaking wet, was worth it.
“I’ll come with you,” Yvonne said, standing up.
Behind her back Beverly and Beth, standing on the edge of the shelter, tossed their eyes together. There was a pause of a moment: a black-and-yellow butterfly, which had been tumbling along the grass, had been blown, by the breeze, up into the shelter, under the roof. The girls pointed, exclaiming, raising their hands, imitating it. Carol, scrambling up on the picnic-table bench, reached the closest, but Beverly, smiling her dangerous smile, pushed her arm back down.
“Let it alone,” she said.
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