Thirty minutes break was what he was allowed for lunch. 12:45-1:15 usually, but if there was a lunchtime rush Mr. Stoughton sometimes asked him to stay on longer. He didn’t mind that though. Didn’t take but 100 seconds to eat his sandwich—the army had taught him how to eat without chewing, how to feel sated without tasting—which left a whole heap of time to relax. Sometimes he sat in the back room of the store, amongst the boxed-up appliances and stacks of white-walled tires, thinking, picking over a weeks-old newspaper. Other times, like today, he went for a walk along Massachusetts Street, looking in storefronts, maybe picking up a cup of coffee to warm his hands.
“Thomas,” Mr. Stoughton called after him as he exited onto the sidewalk. He stopped where he was, paused momentarily, and turned. His boss stood in the doorway of the store he’d owned since the interlude between the wars, just a hair over twenty years. Mr. Stoughton had a thin, clean-shaven face and the last of his graying hair blew wildly from his head now in the breeze. “Your jacket,” he said. “It’s winter.”
Thomas nodded, “Yes, sir,” but only stood there as his black tie suddenly billowed from where it had hung still against the ironed crisp of his white shirt. “It don’t bother me none, sir. I prefer it.”
“I can’t afford you getting sick on me, son,” Mr. Stoughton said in a harsh tone, but then added kindly: “Wouldn’t do either of us any good, you laid up at home.”
Thomas smiled. That was Mr. Stoughton’s way; his hardness could soften so quickly. Thomas considered him a good, fair boss.
“No, sir. I reckon I just might drive Verna mad, were I that.” So he went inside to the backroom and took his blue jacket of thin canvas that suited him well enough even in the harshest of Lawrence’s winters. Mr. Stoughton let one cheek rise as Thomas held it up to show him, then said curtly: “Twenty minutes today, Thomas. Mr. Merton is coming at 1 to pick up that oven. You’ll need to load it for him.”
“Yes, sir,” he said, pulling on his coat as he exited the store again. He walked north, in the direction of the river and railroad, the direction he took each evening home. Sometimes at night he stopped on the bridge to regard the languid flow of the Kaw or paused near the tracks to feel the hot breath of the Santa Fe rushing past. Now he walked a block to the corner of 8th and Massachusetts, where he took his coat off and slung it over his arm. He liked the cold. It softened the starch of his shirt the same way it softened the starchy way his insides sometimes felt. Out here, on these brief ambles downtown, he remembered himself. He felt stillness. There were places he couldn’t go, but that was okay, since he knew the ones he could. Usually on these walks he’d stop in at Green’s Newsstand and look at the bright covers of magazines, scan the black headlines of gray newspapers for news about Korea.
Then he’d stroll up to 6th and cross to the other side of Massachusetts and continue east to New Hampshire, near the Lawrence Journal World offices. He remembered the night, over ten years ago now, when he had been coming home late on a Sunday night in early December. He was 18, only just out of schooling, and he’d told his parents he was helping clean up the church after the weekend services. But what he had done instead was walk right past the AME and toward the cul-de-sac where Angela Geeshie lived in a small house with peeling yellow paint and a sunken front porch, a house, he thought, that were it a face would be wrinkled and yawning. It was dark. He went around the side and stood below her bedroom window, following her movements through the thin gauze of her window curtain as she prepared for sleep. She was a beautiful dark form, faceless, moving around the room under the soft light from a dying bulb until she finally settled in bed with a book. He’d almost done something brave that night in declaring his love, and perhaps he might have summoned the nerve were it not for the sigh of the porch’s warped boards exhaling under new weight. Mr. Geeshie’s evening pipe. The night was still and the only sound was the conversation Mr. Geeshie and that yellow house seemed to be having, one of groans and echoes and breath. Thomas waited for him to finish and hustled in the direction of home, burning in his cowardice, when he noticed the crowd gathered around the Journal World’s offices. Coloreds and whites, near equally. All standing there in the cold, reading dispatches the staff collected right off the AP wires and posted in the windows about the attack in Hawaii, a place that had barely existed until the moment Thomas heard a white man nearby pronounce it and make it real.
Now Thomas passed right on by the press and turned left, heading into East Lawrence, a neighborhood of colored folks mostly, some Indians. He stopped into Willy’s for a swallow of hot coffee. He asked after the time and Willy, in his clean white shirt and dirty white apron, pointed at the cola-clock on the wall. He had thirteen minutes, no need to rush. He sipped his coffee and thought about how that sight stayed with him—Negro and white commiserating on the fate of the country they found themselves living in—all through his years in the war. It had been strange coming home to Lawrence afterwards. The Sunflower Ordnance Works, a rocket powder factory outside of town, had flooded Lawrence with men looking for work, and so followed the taverns and establishments in which they could lose their wages. Was it enough to say the town had grown? Every able-bodied couple, himself included, had a baby. No, simple growth wasn’t enough; it was change, which was more than numbers. It was evident, whether people were talking about it or trying to not talk about it, which is what he was asked to do the by the man at Menninger’s the previous week.
Verna had been on him since last spring about making an appointment.
“They are the best in the country,” she said, “and only thirty miles away.”
“The best at what?” he said.
“Psychology, dear. Psychiatry.” He looked at her sharp, gave her that lemon-sucking face he did when she put on airs and conversed over his head. “At talking to people who’ve been through what you have. Who’ve seen what you saw.” She told him how Dr. Menninger himself had been made a brigadier general by the Army for his work with soldiers during the war. “Someone you can talk to.”
“We talking fine right now, Vern. I know my letters.”
He’d never been able to forget his love for Angela Geeshie, wherever she was now, but Verna was a good woman and her love was true. So when she persisted, as was her way, he finally relented, if only to ease her nag. He didn’t care for driving—it unsettled him—so she took him the twenty-five miles to Topeka, and as they made their way to the clinic they saw the group of colored folks standing on a downtown street corner holding signs. Negroes Acting As Crazy People, he thought, which tickled him. He knew he weren’t a humorous man, so when it came he had to savor it. When Verna asked what he was so pleased about, he kept it for himself and neither remarked a word as they drove past the group. The issue came up a short while later, however, when the doctor asked Thomas about his military training in a segregated unit. It took a while for him to feel comfortable speaking to a white man, despite the doctor’s entreaties. Finally he did so, figuring worst case they’d send him home and he’d be done with the whole nuisance.
The colored units were mostly made up of southern blacks and northern blacks, whom the military trained in the Midwest before shipping off to Europe. There was tension in that rural-urban division and Thomas had felt stuck in-between the two, unable to stake claim in either camp. He was from nowhere and the others didn’t know what to make of a Negro who wasn’t country and wasn’t city. “We different enough as it is without adding color to it,” Thomas told the doctor. Sure the black man walked a harder road, but there wasn’t much good done in crowing about it. “That’s why this trouble here in Topeka ain’t about to serve Negros nothing. I been in a schoolroom with white folk and don’t mean to repeat it.” He’d attended KU for a semester after coming home from the war and suffered the threats and cold silence. Enrollment had exploded, the campus overrun with students, but most often, except for the class in which he’d met Verna, he was the only Negro in the room. More than anything it was the staring that made it impossible to concentrate. He couldn’t focus on the words his professors were saying. He tried to stay inside himself, as he’d always done, but that’s when doing so began to feel like watching a slab of stone slide over the top of your tomb. And so he’d dropped out and went to work at Stoughton’s. The lone consolation of his short time in college had been meeting Verna, who was so serious about her schooling she was able to endure what he could not. “Now we trying to put our kids in that situation?” he said to the doc. “No one’s as good and evil as a child. Black or white.”
Now Thomas was walking through a basement flea market baring the name of that Missouri guerilla who’d once burned Lawrence to the ground. He sometimes came here and browsed the strange debris and wares pedaled by vendors. He came upon a man with long silver hair and sunken eyes. He was Indian but there were no tribal pieces. His booth was made up of varied military supplies and paraphernalia. There were uniforms from the Great War, ceremonial sabers with gold handles, mud-caked Civil War bullets, mint Confederate money, and ornate helmets that had once belonged to soldiers from other countries fighting other wars. On a shelf next to some tarnished medals sat a grenade, the pin still holding the spoon in place. It looked like the Mills bombs Thomas had hurled in the war. He picked it up.
“Easy now,” the man said. “Liable to blow us sky high.” He was sitting on a stool, balancing a cigar-box on his knees that served as his register. “You fight in it?” Thomas neither shook his head nor nodded. “Me, too. Can you believe it?”
“What?” Thomas said.
“Us, fighting for them.”
Thomas continued to examine the grenade, turning it under the light.
“Flip it over,” the red man said. On the bottom of the bomb was a white cap. “Hollowed out.” He was laughing now. “Had you, didn’t I? You could pull that pin and all you’d hear was the heartbeat of the world.”
The clock on the wall showed it was time to go. He hustled back to Stoughton’s and into the backroom. He had two minutes to eat. From his makeshift locker—really just an old metal nail tin—he took out the sandwich Verna had made him that morning: bologna on white, mustard on the bottom slice only. He sat on stack of three used tires Mr. Stoughton bought on the cheap and sometimes resold to poorer customers. He braced the sandwich on his leg and removed the grenade from his pocket. He set it on the ground between his feet and stared at it as he unwrapped his lunch from the wax paper and ate quickly.
When Mr. Stoughton appeared, popping his head through the black curtain, Thomas had both hands on the crust and there was no time to pick up the grenade. Mr. Stoughton asked if he was ready. Mr. Merton had arrived to pick up his oven. “Yes, sir,” Thomas said, chewing furiously. Mr. Stoughton started to turn back, but stopped, having caught sight of the object at Thomas’s feet.
“What is that, Thomas?”
“Ain’t nothing,” he said, swallowing the last bite and picking up the weapon. “Ain’t nothing to worry about.” He turned the grenade upside-down to show Stoughton there was no danger, but his boss wasn’t pleased. Was this his idea of a joke? What would a customer think if they saw it? It was a fireable offense, Mr. Stoughton whispered so no one out front would hear. Thomas dropped his head. They were silent a few moments during which time Mr. Stoughton’s anger gave way to curiosity. He said: “What are you going to do with it?”
“Don’t know.” Thomas shook his head. There were all these things, hard to feel and hard to name, swirling inside him and he didn’t know why, let alone what one was ever expected to do with them.
Mr. Stoughton had little sense of what to make of it all. He stepped fully into the back room, letting the curtain fall behind him.
“Are you okay, Thomas?”
He looked up and smiled, “Yes, sir. Thank you.”
“Take a minute to get yourself together, then meet me out front. We’ve got work to do.” He took Thomas in a long second before turning to leave.
Mr. Stoughton walked to the register where Merton waited. He began filling out the bill of sale but was still thinking of Thomas. What was it about the Negro that unsettled him so? He’d had few workers better and more dependable. Did as told. Never complained, never said boo. But the young man vexed him. His quiet, his stillness. So unsettlingly self-contained. He considered firing him, but decided against it; he was a good worker with a new family—a young girl, plus a baby on the way—and he’d fought in the war. Served his country. Whatever went on inside his head, however, Stoughton didn’t want a glimpse, for it was either everything or nothing and neither seemed innocuous. This was what he was thinking about later that night as he shut his eyes and lowered his head over knotted fingers. He was trying to pray to God but could think only of the confounding blackness inside his young employee’s head. Don’t worry it any longer, he told himself, and then looked up at his wife and smiled. “Dinner looks lovely, dear. Thank you.”
[The Men, 1968]
That May we met in the Lawrence High cafeteria to voice our concerns—black teachers, black counselors, black history, black cheerleaders, black homecoming queen, more representation—to school administration. My brother Brian couldn’t be bothered, but Mother came with me and we sat next to Rodney and his father. Principal Medley listened and nodded and when he spoke he said that as a red-headed man he too knew what it was like to feel oppressed. “Few realize the burdens of being different,” he said. We presented it to them calmly and plainly, no flash, no high talk, and we left the meeting with assurances that steps would be taken. But when we came back to school the following September we found nothing but a couple books on Negro history in the library.
I forget whether it was Mike or Rodney who came up with the idea for the walkout, but by then all of us were a little under the spell of Honeyboy, who’d appeared in Lawrence the previous year in braids and black leather, and it very well might have been at his urging. Honeyboy was not colored, not Negro, not even black. Honeyboy was Black. Regardless, if it wasn’t his idea he’d at least given us the okay. We didn’t tell anyone, not even our parents. That following morning we met in the library—37 of us—and marched through the hallways, gathering numbers along the way. The sea of white faces parted, some scared, some amused. “Looks like they’ve opened a fried chicken stand in the cafeteria,” someone called out. “Hide your women and your watermelon,” cried another. We said nothing, just turned down the main corridor and that’s when I saw Brian. He was standing by his locker, talking to a couple of white boys. Bearded freaks in bandanas and beads. I ran ahead of the group and pulled his arm to come on.
“Lay off,” he said, shaking me away. He wasn’t but a sophomore and thought he already knew all there was. He said he was staying right there and I told him he best get his black ass outside.
“Chill, Petal,” one of the freaks said, setting his hand on my shoulder. He was wearing sunglasses with no lenses and his shirt was opened to his bellybutton. “We’re rapping.”
I put my palm right into that hairless chest and pushed him back against the locker.
“You best not lay hands on me again.”
He formed his hand into a peace sign, said he was a pacifist.
“Better go with your sister, Bug,” the other one said, looking just as crazy-minded as the other. Overalls with no shirt underneath, an American flag running through his belt loops.
“Bug?” I said. “What he mean by that?” It was the first time I’d heard his nickname, the name his friends called him, the name he’d go by up until the day he disappeared a decade later after leaving a commune in Colorado, never to be seen again. Every once in a while I’ll bump into one of the old heads here in Lawrence—they’re all respectable lawyers, bankers, or dead now—and they’ll ask about him. “Any word from Bug? He ever turn up? I bet he’s still out there.”
“It’s what they call me,” my brother shrugged.
I pointed at the one in overalls.
“His name is Brian.”
He thought on that a long moment, biting his lip as if in deep contemplation, and said: “I can accept that.”
We ran to catch-up to the walkout, Brian dragging his big feet the whole way. We joined the group just as they made it outside the main entrance of the school. I was standing next to Rodney and he took hold of my hand. We turned around and what a sight that was. All those white faces in schoolroom windows, wondering what the hell we were up to. A few teachers had come outside, asking what was going on. We said nothing, turned, and marched to the community center, where Honeyboy waited.
Later that night, when we got home, word had spread.
“You better have an explanation,” Mother said. “The school has been calling all afternoon.”
Brian brushed past her—a quick kiss to her cheek—without a word, disappearing into his room. A few seconds later the metallic sound of rock and roll behind his closed door. She turned to me: “Well?” I tried to explain to her what we were doing. She’d been at the meeting the previous spring. She knew the problems at the high school and had come out in support.
“They ain’t done nothing for us since May, Mama,” I said.
“I am your mother, not your mama.”
“They buy a few books and hire a part-time colored counselor and expect us to go back to the fields?”
“Would you listen to yourself?”
“We done asking for things—we taking them!”
“How can you expect to be taken seriously when you sound like—”
“Like what? Sound black?”
“Ineloquent,” she said. “You’re acting ignorant, Petal.”
“Which one of us acting?”
Mother had her education and saw to it that her children did too, but oh how our affectations nettled the other.
“You need to be smarter than them,” she said. She paused, sat down on the white couch. She had an unsettling way of remaining composed at all times, and her only tell at that moment was the way she ran her hand over the lace stitching in the couch’s pink floral pattern. “Progress is made through thoughtful, patient work—not through rash decision-making. Not through coercion. Look what we did with the swimming pool.”
For a decade she’d been part of various groups trying to integrate private swimming pools, so we’d have somewhere to swim in the summer. When that failed—the pool owners saying it was an issue of private property, not race—they fought to have ballot measures introduced that would create a municipal swimming pool. It was voted down in ’56, ’61, and ’63, but had finally passed the previous year. That was how change happened, she said. That’s the thing. It wasn’t that Mother accepted the way things were. She’d been involved, had taken me to marches since I was little. She knew things at LHS were rotten for us. What we were really debating that night in the front room was strategy, but I couldn’t see that, couldn’t see her reticence as anything but betrayal.
“Crumbs,” I said. “You know they call it ‘coon lagoon,’ don’t you?”
“The white man drops crumbs and you stoop to pick them up and say thank you.”
“Don’t sharpen your tone with me, Petal.”
But I was too worked up. I could hear it in my own voice: Honeyboy’s words, his inflection.
“Grateful to be a nigger.”
She rose slowly from the couch.
“You see what that done to Daddy. Sitting in a room by hisself in Topeka.”
Mother was looking at the floor, as if she weren’t listening to a word I was saying.
“To be black the way they want us to be in this country can’t help but make you crazy. Something wrong with you if you ain’t!”
The force of her slap sent me backwards, the shock of it—Mother had never laid a hand on me—made me crouch and, despite myself, cry. She didn’t say anything, just turned and calmly walked away. I heard the creak of the staircase and then the slow clack of her heels on the wooden floor upstairs as she made her way to her room and quietly shut the door behind her. I snuck out that night, made my way to Rodney’s house across town. It was unusual that September and the night air felt warm. When I arrived, I went to his window and tapped. He opened it and held a finger to his lips. He listened hard for a few seconds to hear if anyone had stirred and then hoisted me up into his room. I was still worked up hotter than hell and whispered all sorts of familial blasphemies to poor Rodney. I called my very own mother a high-yellow bitch. I called Brian a cracker-lover. I called Daddy a mad Uncle Tom. Shame on me. I resented my mother’s skin, her intelligence. I resented her comportment, her gradualism. I resented her privilege, which I’d enjoyed and benefitted from because her father and grandfather had managed the near impossible: to become successful businessmen in Kansas City at a time when colored folk were lucky to find work as a bootblack. I resented that we had a nice house and white neighbors. Why didn’t we live with our people on the east side of town? I was a wet-faced, angry mess, and Rodney held me until it was out of my system, my eyes sore and my throat strained.
I took the long way home that night, walking down Massachusetts Street, looking in store windows. I stopped when I came to Stoughton’s appliance store. It was dark, only the faint glow of a light left on in a back room. Daddy had once worked there when I was young. I tried to imagine him standing behind the register or carrying something to a customer’s car. I saw him smiling at the customer, a white man in a camel topcoat and feathered hat. “Yes, sir. You’re welcome. Thank you, sir.”
The next morning I made my way to Veteran’s Park, where we had agreed to set up our own black school, right across the street from LHS. Rodney called it symbolic, Honeyboy called it revolutionary. We set up tables and chairs, a tent. By this time word had spread about our alternative school and black people showed up to hold signs, show support, to teach classes on the stories and history excised from our regular schoolbooks. The park was humming. There were reporters covering the story, asking questions about our demands. “But Principal Medley says you have a colored teacher at LHS,” one of them said.
Rodney responded: “He’s a Negro. He’s not black. There’s a difference.”
We would all return to school in the coming days, satisfied with having made our point. The administration would meet some of our demands. We’d have black cheerleaders. Rodney and I were seniors. We would graduate and go to KU the following year and join the Black Student Union. In two years Rodney would be shot as he fled from police. In ten Brian would disappear. In thirteen Daddy would pass away, still in the sanitarium. Those beautiful men: dead, vanished, or insane. And then there would be only me and Mother.
She showed up that day in Veteran’s Park. I first saw her standing at the periphery, on the sidewalk, dressed-up in a way that embarrassed me at the time. I was still smarting from the previous night and we didn’t speak, but we stood close enough to eavesdrop on what the other was saying. This was how we sometimes communicated. Honeyboy approached her. “Verna, thank you for coming.”
“My name is Mrs. Johnson,” she said.
Honeyboy seemed to know Mother didn’t care for him, and he let go a little nervous laugh. “Of course, Mrs. Johnson,” he said, adding, “ma’am.”
“I heard you need teachers,” she said, and he led her to a group of people, some sitting in chairs, some sitting on the grass, all waiting to hear her speak.
[It Just So Happens I Have Many Concerns, 1961]
The pleasant sound of two fresh inches of snow crunching under the slow spin of your tires on a January morning. It’s too cold to make them walk, so you’ve dropped Petal and Brian at school and now you make your way to the doctor. You don’t take the most direct route. You have a few minutes, so you take the Oldsmobile to the north end of Massachusetts street, near the Kaw river, and turn south. The lampposts wear the newly fallen snow like stoles. There are red-and-white bows on street corner signs, holly wreathes in storefront windows, and unlit Christmas lights still snake through the trees, though it is the middle of January.
Tonight you will watch the Kansas President’s Farewell Address with a group you’ve come to be acquainted with. This group, the Lawrence League for the Practice of Democracy, gets together to discuss, debate, and propose plans for furthering equality in Lawrence. It is intended to be an inter-racial gathering of like-minded folks from the university and the town, but it is mostly white faculty members and their wives, a few forward-thinking folks from local church groups. You are one of two Negroes—sometimes three, when Sherelle can get off from work—and there is one Oriental from the chemistry department. Recently your work has been focused on integrating swimming pools. The previous summer you picketed the Plunge, a private swim club that doesn’t admit Negroes. Unsuccessful, the demonstration was denounced as a communist plot by the Lawrence Committee for a Free America and the Save America from Communism Council. Everyone belongs to a group, a society, a committee, a council, and yours will now turn its attention towards generating funds for an integrated city pool.
But you’re not thinking of that now. For now you are concerned with keeping the appointment you’ve scheduled, so you continue south on Massachusetts, past the candy-cane swirl of barbershops, past Raney’s Drugstore, past Weavers department store. You still can’t pass Stoughton’s without looking, half-expecting to see Tommy.
At the doctor’s office, you take off your long, winter fur and sling it over your arm. You fill out paperwork and wait, as instructed. You rest your small purse on your lap, resisting the urge to itch the spot where the nylon under your mint-colored dress has snagged a rogue hair. When he calls you back—a silver-haired man, whose indulgence of bay rum overpowers even the anesthetized nothing-smell of the medical office—he takes you to a small room near the back. It doesn’t say COLORED on the door, but you know this is where he takes the few Negro patients he has. Not many can afford private treatment. Daughter of a well-to-do real estate executive in Kansas City who has made his father’s business profitable by managing to up-sell in redlined white-fled neighborhoods, you can.
He looks at your chart and though it says why you’ve come, he asks anyway. When you tell him, he asks if you’re married.
“Yes,” you say, which is true, though sometimes you tell people you will never see again that your husband has passed away.
“May I ask why you would like oral contraception?”
He seems to know he’s been inappropriate. He closes the chart but quickly opens it back up, feigning a second glance at something he might have misread. It would be easy enough to say that you and your husband have two children and two children is all you desire to have, but you don’t. You cannot tell him the truth, which is that you’ve not made love to your husband in eight years, which is that you’re seeing one of the men from the group you’ll be attending tonight. You cannot tell him that this man is white, nor that he is married to a woman who also attends the group and with whom you are friendly. You cannot tell him that this man was a professor of yours years ago at KU and that the affair started before Tommy went to Topeka. You cannot tell him any of this and your privilege allows you to know you don’t have to. You tell him so.
Though he has been allowed to for over a year, your doctor is hesitant to prescribe the Pill, believing that it encourages promiscuity. But he has a bigger concern: population growth. The figures are staggering and sometimes he finds himself driven awake in the middle of the night by the image of a planet shrinking until it is the size of a marble residing in the bellybutton of a pregnant woman. He does not subscribe to the eugenicist theories of his medical forbears, but the numbers don’t lie. Higher birthrates in racial minorities meant more children born into poverty, which meant the need for more social services, which meant more government involvement and higher taxes, all of which were minor nuisances that distracted from the real overarching problem: the finite supply of necessary resources to keep the species alive.
You don’t know that he’s considering all of this in the long silence that has come between the two of you before he relents, signs the prescription, and walks into an empty adjacent room to wash his hands before seeing his next patient. Right now you are struck by the certain fear that he knows you’re sleeping with a married white man.
Neither of you knows the complexities of the other.
You have poor kin in North Carolina who were sterilized without their consent or knowledge, who have wondered aloud why God won’t bless them with a child as He has you, and many years from now, when the duplicity is revealed and thousands of folks begin the long process of seeking legal recourse, you will recall the silence in this office, on this day in January, when there was new snow on the ground and the president from Abilene, Kansas was to give his farewell address.
[The Leastest, 1970]
We. We live on the Farm. We snort and smoke and drink and fuck. We inject things meant for barnyard animals. Cow speed! Tranquilizers! We make a living selling shitty ragweed to dealers in Florida who use it to cut the good stuff that comes up from South America. K-pot, ditch weed! Which grows wild in the fields outside of Lawrence, brought here in the hooves of Texas steer in the days of the old cattle drives. We’re on the Silk Road for drugs, the meeting place of every east-west/north-south drug runner. Baghdad on the Kaw. Highway 40 SDS. We are the Kaw Valley Hemp Pickers! We are from towns most have never heard of—Mater, Seneca, Sublette, Holcomb—and we’ve dropped out of school and landed in communes and stash houses in and around Lawrence, which is burning, burning, burning. This is the summer the cops have killed Rodney Wilkes and three nights later they shot that white kid outside the Gaslight. Now there are fires every night, bombs, arson, snipers in windows shooting cop cars. People are arming themselves: the Panthers in east Lawrence, the Lawrence Liberation Front in Oread, the Klan and the Minutemen at the police station, scared citizens in their homes, clutching shotguns. Everyone is on edge and we want only to roll the fattest jay and exhale a mushroom cloud on the city, but right now there is little interest in drugs. Right now the market has spoken and people want guns and so we will deliver weapons we have no clue how to use.
The cache arrives in the trunk of a green ’62 Skylark, driven by bleary-eyed Weathermen who’ve been driving for twenty hours straight, headed for a meeting in California. Two dykes. They’ve been put in touch with us by a guy who knows a guy who once scribbled the address of the Farm on a piece of paper and then swallowed that piece of paper. We direct them to pull around back so their car stays out of sight from the road. We watch them unload the package and switch license plates. We are to run the guns to the Panthers who will hand us an envelope of money. They want us to go now, but Lawrence is under curfew. It’s too hot, we tell them. We’ll go in the morning. “Don’t double-cross us, or we’ll blow this place to fuck,” they say, and we nod.
“Wouldn’t dream of it,” we say. “We’re on your side.” They look us up and down and tell us that we are not on their side. They are not a chatty pair. When they speak, it’s mostly to tell us about the big meeting in California they can’t tell us anything about. They do not partake of the spliff we pass. They ask us if we’ve read Lenin and we say we are the walrus. They are not amused. We are lost causes, at best human shields for a future bank expropriation. They will allow themselves a bowl of hippie gruel, three hours of sleep, and nothing more before they start driving. They tell us when we wake they will be gone and we will forget their faces and the make of their car. “If I hear from the Panthers that you didn’t deliver the package,” says the one who looks uncannily like John Brown, “I’ll personally come back and blow this place sky high. You won’t even know it’s coming.”
If it must be so, we tell them we’d prefer not to know it’s coming.
The other one is also thin but with blonde hair that looks to have been dyed even blonder. She is, in fact, blonde on blonde. Is that what Dylan meant? We’ll debate this later when the dykes have gone to bed, tripping outside under the lonesome stars. She looks at me and asks: “Why aren’t you a Panther?”
I rise from my chair quickly, muster a straight-faced anger.
“That’s some racist shit,” I say in a voice not my own.
Blondie is caught off guard, scoots her chair back. She is about to apologize when John Brown’s gaunt, woodeny face says, “We’re anti-racist.”
“Show me,” I say.
“Show you?” says Brown.
“Show me how anti-racist you are,” I say. “Kiss my black feet.”
This is the best part: to my amazement they actually do so. They lower their weary white bodies to the floor, their heads hovering over my sandals like I’m Jesus Himself, and we can’t hold it in any longer. We crack-up, our eyes fill we tears. We shoot ropes of snot from our noses. We fall out of chairs. We haven’t laughed like this in at least half an hour.
“Fucking cunts,” says Blondie.
“Fucking dicks,” adds Brown. As they leave the kitchen, she stops and says, “Deliver the guns tomorrow, or sky high, I’ll do it. I’ll send this place to the fucking moon.”
In the morning—perhaps we’ve woken or maybe the sun has only come up—they’re gone. We snoop through the cache: two rifles, a bunch of handguns, a few grenades. In case the cops pull the truck over, we decide it’s best if not everyone goes. Can’t risk the whole Farm getting busted. Rutabaga twirls in circles—a light blue flash of clacking beads and chains—chanting his gibberish, and then stops on a dime and says he’s in. His mantra this morning is: “I’ll go.” Scare Baby says we need someone else. He looks at Mr. B. and Mr. B looks at Wishy, who is pregnant and splayed out on the couch.
“Maybe you should go, Bug,” says Mr. B says.
Scare Baby agrees: “The Panthers’ll deal easier with you.”
“Just don’t tell them to kiss your feet,” says Wishy, trying to joke, but no one laughs. She is wearing only a dishtowel that she’s fashioned into a loincloth. Her long blond hair falls past her nipples. I tell her to shut up and put on something besides a diaper. I’m edgy and short tempered because I haven’t yet taken anything this morning.
“Hey,” says Mr. B, resting a hand on my chest. “She has a pretty face. Her diaper is lovely.”
So then it’s me and Rutabaga in the red truck, driving into town. The package is in the flat bed, tied up in a blanket and covered by a heavy tarp weighted down by rocks. I watch my speed, check the rearview, and Rutabaga speaks words I do not understand. We don’t know much about him. He showed up at the Farm a few months ago, saying he’d just come from India. He’d studied with the maharishi and now his name was Rudra Veda. He asked if he could be our guru. Sure, Rutabaga, we said. We could use a guru.
We turn onto Mass St, driving slowly past South Park, where there’s some sort of demonstration going on. A hundred years ago, this was the street Quantrill’s guerillas rode up and down, looting stores and killing townsfolk in the name of the Confederacy. The shit you remember from school, even when you’re a dropout.
I pull the truck over in front of Strawberry Fields. Rutabaga doesn’t ask why, just gets out of the car like it’s a planned stop. It’s already hot and I think that maybe after we make the drop we can swing by the pool to cool off. A church bell tolls, its sound hanging long and lonesome in the summer air. We go inside and I buy some papers and a one-hitter to give to Wishy when we return, a peace offering. Rutabaga stares at a case of crystals for a while, mumbling to himself, before picking up a necklace that has a many-armed figure hanging from the end. He holds the idol close to his face, and then he puts the necklace around his neck and leaves the store. “We’ll take that too,” I say to the girl at the counter.
Outside the bells still ring. They unsettle me and I wish I’d gotten high before leaving. I’m itchy, aching, already feeling hollow in my bones. I roll a cigarette and a police car creeps by. Rutabaga waves and I tell him to knock it off. “The fuck is going on with these bells?” I say. “It’s not even Sunday, is it?”
“It’s okay,” Rutabaga says. “I hear them too.”
I tell him let’s get this over with.
When we get to Afro House, there are several guys in full Panther dress standing watch on the porch. It’s all black denim and berets over here. One approaches the truck and I tell him we have the package. He looks at Rutabaga, then at me, takes the toothpick from his mouth, and tells us to pull around the side of the house. Before we’ve even gotten out of the car, two others have thrown back the tarps and taken the package through a backdoor. We follow them but there’s a big cat standing guard at the door. “We haven’t been paid yet,” I say. He says I can come in, but Rutabaga can’t. “He’s cool,” I say. “He’s not white anymore. He’s Indian.” He pauses a moment to remove his beret and wipe away sweat before leading us inside and down a flight of stairs to the basement. It’s a cellar they’ve fashioned into a war room. There is a map of Lawrence with certain areas highlighted and marked beneath the black stencil: Fight Pig Amerika. Pictures of Che, Ho, and Malcolm—the gang’s all here—on the wall, and maybe two-dozen Most Wanted posters bearing the face of the cop who shot Rodney. Wanted for Murder, they say. Ten Pigs for our Brother. Another shows Rodney’s face above the words: He Was Ready—Are you? Seven or eight Panthers follow us in and sit in the ratty couches to our left and right and before us stands Honeyboy. The package lies on the floor before him and he squats to inspect it, then looks at us a long moment.
“The fuck you doing here, peckerwood faggot?” he says.
“It’s okay,” I say. “He’s with me.”
“I wasn’t talking about him.” He stands and moves close to me, leans in an inch away from my face. “Look at you in your sandals and beads.” He slowly circles around me. “You worse than Uncle Tom. Ain’t never seen anything as backwards as a hippie nigga.”
“I’m not the one wearing sunglasses in a dark basement.”
He pushes me: “Motherfucker, I will end you.”
“Stop!” a voice from behind calls. Though I haven’t seen her in over a year, of course I recognize it.
“He my brother.”
Petal enters the cellar and won’t make eye contact with me. She’s looking at Honeyboy, who seems to think she’s joking, but then it clicks and he stares at me hard. “Shit, I remember you.” He waves over his shoulder to a fat man with a cigar box by his foot. “Pay these goofy-looking motherfuckers.”
“Let there be commerce between us,” smiles Rutabaga, the tips of his fingers touching, forming a tent on his chest.
“Show these hippie capitalists the door.”
Petal follows us outside. She looks just as absurd as the others. I ask if she’s got a minute. She looks back at her comrades in the doorway and nods at them. “A minute,” she says. I tell Rutabaga to scoot over so the three of us can fit in the cab of the truck and Petal tells him that’s not going to work and points to the truck bed. He complies without comment, hopping in and scooting to the side. We are silent as I drive, and I watch Rutabaga studying the god on his necklace out back. The last time I saw Petal was right before I dropped out of LHS and moved to the Farm. It was the last time I saw Mother as well. The three of us had gone to see Daddy in Topeka. Petal and Mother argued the entire time about the war, about politics, about school, and by the time we got to the sanitarium they were no longer speaking to one another. They brought Daddy out to the foyer and we took seats around him on a couch. Mom visited him every week, Petal and I less frequently, but this was how it always was. The three of us sitting around him, wondering if he’ll ever say anything again. He just sat there rubbing his hand over his leg as Mom gave him the week’s news. She told him how after two years the city had finally built the swimming pool just in time for the summer heat. “Petal and Brian are going to the opening, aren’t you all,” she said. I looked at Petal and she was slumping in her chair, shaking her head. It was hard trying to talk to someone who never answered. I said, yeah, we sure were.
I park the car on 8th and tell Rutabaga to wait here. Petal and I walk quietly a minute and there’s just the sound of the bells ringing. I tell her I’m going to go crazy if they don’t stop.
“They ringing it 44,000 times for the war dead.”
“Good thing I live in the country now.”
“Of course they only counting they own dead. Ain’t enough bells in town to ring for all the Vietnamese.”
When we get to Mass St, I tell her I’m sorry about Rodney.
“After his funeral,” she says, “we marched from the church to the cemetery, right up Mass. Had his casket on a hearse pulled by a couple ponies. Crackers on the sidewalks and in store windows just staring. You could feel how scared they was. That’s when I knew we were gonna win.”
We have stopped in front of Stoughton’s. She asks if I remember this place. One time when I was little, before he fully cracked, Daddy brought me here to meet his old boss. I don’t remember Stoughton’s face, but I can hear his voice. “This your youngest?” he’d said. “Yes, sir,” Daddy answered. “This Brian, my leastest.” My leastest. The kind of expression Mother probably tried to coach out of him. It’s one of the few things I can remember him ever saying. He and Stoughton spoke a minute more—about what I don’t remember—and then we left and continued down Mass St. I don’t tell her this though.
The store is empty now. Closed indefinitely a sign says. Petal is craning her neck to see the roof. The brick is scorched, the upper-floor windows blown out.
“That night, after we put Rodney in the ground, I threw the Molotov right through that one. I hoped he was in there.”
She says nothing. We were never particularly close, but we’ve never felt as far apart as we do now. There is a moment where we meet eyes and she puts a hand to my face and it seems like she might say something important, but when she finally does speak, she says only, “Good work on that package,” and pauses a moment. “Now forget you ever saw it or me and whoever gave it to you. Get the fuck out of here and keep your head down.” She turns and leaves and I’m standing in front of Stoughton’s Appliance store, where my father once worked, and still the bells toll.