Ezra Klein, in WHY WE’RE POLARIZED, cites the Sixties as the first major split in the nation’s identity. I was a housewife in those days, wife of a University of Michigan professor and city councilman (Democrat) and mother of two small children. It was the experience of living in the midst of university protests, often aimed at my husband and entangling my children, that made a writer of me to begin with. The turmoil of those days took shape in the short story below, one of many that later became part of THE INHERITORS. It’s a long story, so I’ve divided it in half; the second will come next week.
It was finally September; the Chicago air was no longer laden with the weight of summer, nor tinged yet with the chill of winter. Alicia raced toward the glare of rubble that formed a barricade between the old neighborhood and the new grass and shining walkways beyond. Redevelopment, they’d called it. They’d all watched the wrecking balls come from East, from North, from West, pushing everyone South ahead of the advancing wave of falling concrete. They’d gazed at the exposed bathrooms and bedroom wallpaper of school friends’ flats and worried that the ball wouldn’t stop before it came to their block, burying them alive.
But today Alicia didn’t care; she couldn’t wait to reach the campus and put the barrier of rubble and steam shovels between her and home.
At the edge, she stopped and caught her breath. New saplings were just trying out their colors. Shining new buildings and walkways were speckled with peace signs scrawled on construction fences, the raised fist of Black Power on tattered posters, and shreds of rally notices taped to sidewalks; all waited for the revolution, abandoned for the summer, to be reborn. She joined the line at the campus center where longhaired students in tie-dyed T-shirts passed out leaflets to newcomers in newly minted jeans. It felt like the day they lined up for First Communion, ready to be transformed.
“Where’re you from?” a fresh-faced blond boy ahead of her turned and asked, as an equally blond bearded student pushed leaflets into their hands.
“What? Oh. Here. Chicago.” She shrugged apologetically, waiting for his disappointment.
“Oh, yeah? Really?” Tall, lean, and blue-eyed, he looked her up and down as though he’d expected something else—dyed hair and net stockings, maybe? Rhinestones dangling from her ears? “You don’t look—I mean—I haven’t met anyone from Chicago yet.”
She blinked. “Really? That’s odd. I’ve never met anyone else.” She laughed. “And you? Where are you from?”
“Where they burn witches?”
It was his turn to laugh. “Illinois. Lincoln’s birthplace, you know?”
“Oh. Down south. How come you didn’t go to Urbana?”
“Why would I do that?” He accepted another flyer. “I want to see the city, man! Besides, now my folks are over four hours away. Anyway, they think Urbana’s a hotbed of anti-war freaks.”
“And Chicago isn’t?”
“No, Chicago is full of gangsters.” He grinned. “They aren’t as scary, I guess.” He laughed. “Lucky me, eh? Think I’ll grow a beard to celebrate.” Beside them, a boy in uniform elbowed the bearded student out of the way to hand out flyers on the R.O.T.C. They exchanged obscenities, making her new friend step back.
“Lucky you.” She smiled at his embarrassment.
“Whew. You didn’t even blink.” He looked after them. “Guess you’re used to it, living in Chicago.”
“I guess.” She grinned, unused to this backhanded sort of praise.
“You live at home?”
“Just for now. I’m saving money to live on my own.”
“Not in a dorm? They don’t let freshmen do that, do they? I heard the neighborhood around here is pretty rough.”
She blinked, too surprised to be offended. “No kidding. You don’t have Mexicans in Salem?”
“Just farm workers going through in the summer.” He shrugged. “Guess it’s different here, huh?”
His smile was so bashful that her sharp retort died on her lips. “Yeah.”
“That’s good.” The line was beginning to move. “James Bailey,” he said, thrusting out his hand, “Jimmy.”
“Alicia Barron,” she answered, shaking it as the line pushed against them.
“When I get through here,” he said over his shoulder, “I’m going out to see the city.” He sidestepped the too eager student behind him. “Maybe you could show me,” he blurted.
“Okay.” She liked him, this new creature—this Jimmy Bailey. How could you not?
She lost sight of him as they were led around the island that had risen new and clean within her childhood world. She felt as though she’d been given wings one moment and in the next, that she’d gotten into the wrong place. Around her, everyone was introducing themselves instead of listening to the leader; she heard “Joliet,” “Aurora,” “Peoria,” “Evanston,” “Rock Island,”—every town in Illinois, it seemed with a few other states thrown in as well, but only once “Chicago.” That couldn’t be right; the brochures had said over and over that the campus was built here so Chicago students on scholarship like her could go to college, but where were they? She edged her way through the clump toward a square-built girl with fuzzy blond hair pulled back into a ponytail who was talking eagerly to one of the brochure pushers, an equally short girl with equally kinky black hair.
“Hi,” Alicia said, as the girl promised to attend some meeting and turned back to the line. “I heard you say you’re from Chicago.”
“Chicago, too. I thought there’d be more of us.”
“Yeah. A lot of my friends said they weren’t coming to orientation. Figured it was just for out-of-towners—dorm kids. But I decided I wanted to be a part of things, and I was going to start right out that way—as though I was a real student, you know?” She, too, Alicia noticed, had on brand new sneakers.
“Well, we are real students, aren’t we? I mean, why wouldn’t we be?”
“I dunno. ‘Cause we aren’t living in the dorm, according to them. I have one friend who is, but she comes from money, you know? She’s not from my neighborhood; I only met her at camp. I’m Brenda Kowalski, by the way.” She held out her hand.
“Where’re you from?”
“South Chicago. That girl was giving me a line about unions being patsies. Being from IWW stock, I had to educate her a bit.” She laughed.
Alicia grinned. “I’m from a garment worker family, myself.”
“Glad to meet you.” She held out her hand.
“Me, too.” Alicia felt a rush of gratitude, then laughed in surprise. Never before would she have thought of a Polack as being just like her. They fell silent and turned their attention to the older student standing on the stairs, raising her hand for silence. The Dean of Students, she said, was about to address them. They filed into the lecture hall in solemn silence. The Dean was a woman. First she talked about what a wonderfully bright, select group they were to be accepted here, then about behaving that way, then, lastly about the twin dangers of campus and city violence.
Brenda poked a finger in Alicia’s ribs like a hold-up man and giggled. “I betcha most of these kids never leave campus except in Mama’s and Papa’s car.”
Alicia grinned back, feeling very superior. “Hey, I told one, a kid from Salem, I’d show him Chicago. Want to come?”
“Oh, yeah? When?”
“Right now. In fact, there he is.” She waved. “Jimmy!”
“You sure?” Brenda said at her elbow. “He looks cool. I don’t want to break in on something …”
“Don’t be silly. Come on.”
“What Chicago are you going to show him?” Brenda asked after Alicia introduced her.
“What Chicago do you want to see?” Alicia asked him. “Sunday Chicago or real Chicago?”
“Real Chicago, of course.” He grinned.
And so they took the ‘EL’ through the back yards of the city, gazing through the gray wood lacing of porches and stairs into kitchens, where slip-clad dark-skinned women cooked, oblivious to the roar of the passing trains. They walked down what was left of West Madison, through drunks and spilled trash cans, gagging at the odor from open doorways. They hopped a bus down Halsted through the Mexican district; she enjoyed watching his eyes widen when she told him this was home.
“Oh, gosh,” he said, taken aback, “I didn’t know you—geez, I’m sorry. You don’t look Mexican.
“It’s okay,” She laughed, refusing, for once, to take affront at the comment she’d heard all of her life from the other side. “From the farm to the slaughterhouse,” she said, “like all those poor cows.” She pointed to the gate that marked the vanished stockyards.
“Right there?” he said, grinning at her implied retaliation. “Where The Jungle came from?”
“Yep. But they’re gone now. You missed the good old days, along with Capone and coal dust.”
They took another bus out State Street, through the heart of the Black Belt where graffiti-laden fences and housing projects had replaced the tenements of Alicia’s childhood, then up 63rd Street, where overhead ‘L’ tracks made a tunnel of dives and jazz bars. Finally, they caught the commuter train to South Chicago and the steel mills, where Brenda pointed out her street of sharp-peaked workmen’s houses with their asphalt shingles and stingy front stoops. All through, until they sank into a booth back at a campus coffee shop, they gloated in their city savvy, trying every trick to shock this country hick.
“Are all of the Chicago kids going to be like you two?” he asked, as they ordered sodas and hamburgers.
“What do you mean, like us?” Brenda said, a shade of belligerence in her voice.
“You know. Fun. Regular kids.”
“At UIC, you mean?” Alicia asked, surprised.
“No way,” Brenda exclaimed. “We’re working-class kids. Most of them are suburban kids. At least that’s what my folks say. They say it will develop my social skills,” she said with a sour face.
Jimmy laughed. “Well, then I’m glad I met you. I’m a scholarship kid myself.”
“Really?” they said simultaneously, then looked at each other, embarrassed at the united force of their surprise.
“Yep. United Mine Workers scholarship,” he grinned. “You girls think all the workers of the world are in the city?” He stopped to enjoy the chagrin on their faces. “I worked the mines in the summers. My grandpa was killed in the Centralia blast—you know about that?”
Thanks to a passionate high school teacher, Alicia was at least able to nod.
By the end of the day, they were inseparable; by the end of the term, they were revolutionaries, housed together in a co-op with a bright green door. Alicia felt the thrill of leadership again, as she hadn’t felt it since she quit dancing in high school.
Then it was winter, and the My Lai massacre hit the papers; the Tet Offensive followed. As the President ordered bombings in retaliation, draft cards fed the flames rising from oil drums set in the middle of campus. Crowds cheered. Alicia came upon Jimmy in the middle of the night, sitting on the edge of his bed, his head in his hands, his draft notice on the floor under his bare feet. “What am I going to do, ‘Lis?” “What am I going to do?”
“Get a deferment, of course,” Brenda said from the doorway.
He shook his head. “Can’t. Doesn’t feel right. All of the guys I went to school with are going—have already gone, most of them.”
“Geez, man.” Brenda’s tone was halfway between sympathy and exasperation. She shook her head, finding nothing more to say, and disappeared.
Alicia sat down beside him and grabbed his hand; they sat like bits of debris snagged on a twig in the middle of a rushing river until his eyes closed. She swung his feet up onto the bed then, and covered him with the homemade quilt that had earned him much ridicule from his roommate, then tiptoed back to her room to stare out the window at the bleak winter landscape. If only she and Jimmy were like Brenda, so vehement and without doubt.
The next day, she stood transfixed, watching the bonfire and thinking of Jimmy. Not cheering. She felt a violent shove from behind. The march was moving, trampling memory, drowning it beneath song as the crowd burst through the campus gates and into the city. She felt the rush of power in her veins, felt her chest rise out of the paralysis of the night.
Brenda shook her arm. “Come on, Alicia! Sing!”
They fought their way to the head of the march, waving their arms to the beat of John Henry and Casey Jones, songs they’d grown up on, then blended into This Land is Our Land, carrying the battle into their own generation. The march swept through the gate, then under the railroad tracks all the way to 18th Street. The songs grew louder, and they felt themselves becoming cells in a single being. Then the mob surged past them, and the being became charging beast.
Alicia’s throat tightened as she spied her mother and godmother standing in the doorway of their dress shop. She ducked in spite of herself. The songs turned to jeers as the throng passed the police station, and she closed her eyes, praying that José, her old boyfriend, wasn’t on duty. She didn’t want to be among these tramplers. She wanted to stop, to turn the crowd away from its path to the army recruiting station, for the mob was feeding on itself, swelling, blind.
She was fighting her way out when she heard a rock smash a window. Then another. She reached the edge of the crowd in time to see the window of Alvarez Grocery shatter and to hear the singing become shouted curses. She stumbled over a fallen soldier. His companions, who had just been coming from the recruiting station, shoved her away, cursing, and she was looking into the bloody face of Diego Sandoval, her best friend Maria’s brother. He stared up, not believing it was her.
For a split second, she had a memory of another mob, of Diego with his arm around her and around Maria, pulling them away—then it vanished as the wave carried her away again. Finally, she escaped, landing alone in a side street, robbed of the energy and strength that had been carrying her. The street ended at the railroad embankment in less than a block. She could do nothing but turn and walk along it, kicking at the human refuse that filled the weedy verge, and let tears of confusion flow.
When she finally found her way back to the house with the green door, all of the lights were blazing. In the living , the sagging couches retrieved from second-hand stores had disappeared under bodies, as had the threadbare Oriental rug that covered the floor. More sat on the window seat. Out-shouting one another. She could do nothing but stand transfixed.
Brenda, in a tie-dye shirt, her hair unbound from its braid, stood in front of the boarded-over fireplace, her hands in the air, motioning for quiet. “Listen, listen, listen!” The voices paused. “You’re angry. So am I. My brother got sent over there—and was killed! For what? Why? For somebody else’s war. But we got to put that anger together to make a difference. It doesn’t do any good to be yelling at each other.” She took a breath, and they waited. “You want to believe Democrats are different from Republicans. So do I. My folks fought their whole lives to create a workers’ party, and that was the Democratic Party. But its leaders have betrayed them. Betrayed them!” Alicia shed her coat and slipped into a seat by the door.
“Kennedy was a Democrat, you say?” Brenda yelled. “Did he come out and support Martin Luther King? No. Did he stop the French’s colonialist war? No, he marched right to it and is taking us with him. And Johnson? My parents keep saying he’s different because the unions support him. But you know what? The unions have joined the system. My folks, they don’t want to hear that. You don’t want to hear it. They don’t want to know it. You don’t want to know it. They gave their lives to the IWW, and they want to hope. I don’t blame them, but it just ain’t so. So you’ve got to give up hoping! You have to take your anger and put it to work! Push them ! Create the kind of democracy you were promised. You’ve got to listen to Steve, here, because he has a plan—a vision to fight for.” She sank down into a sofa, and another student took over.
Alicia slipped back into the hall and around to the kitchen, numb now, her mind unmoving.
“Hey Alicia.” Brenda slapped her back as she passed.
“Hey, Brenda. How’s it going?”
“Good. We’re marching again tomorrow while everyone’s still hot.” She took a jar of peanut butter from the shelf. “Should be twice as big as last week’s. Can you believe this shit? And my brother’s over there. My very own brother. My dad won’t even speak to me anymore. Is there any beer in there?”
Alicia pulled one out and handed it to her.
“I told him I was just doing what he taught me to do. He hung up on me.”
“You’re good at it, Brenda.”
“Yeah, well, it’s like I told him. It’s in the genes. What these kids know about organizing is made for football rallies. But their hearts are in the right place, you know?” She shook her head and swathed peanut butter on a piece of bread.
Alicia looked for the leftover pizza she’d put away for supper. Gone. Suddenly she was unbelievably homesick. Brenda paced around the kitchen with her peanut butter sandwich and beer, talking of press releases, speeches, routes for marches.
As Brenda’s anger turned into excitement, Alicia’s hands turned to ice.
“What’s wrong, Alicia? You’re on, aren’t you?” Brenda said, stopping in mid-stride.
Alicia stared down at the peanut butter sandwich she was making. “That soldier who fell down? I grew up with him.”
Brenda stopped. “Geez. I’m sorry.” She came over and put an arm around her. “But he’s not your friend now, Alicia—they’ve made a number out of him. That’s what I tell myself about my brother. They made a number out of him.”
Alicia nodded, swallowed. The peanut butter stuck in her throat. She took a gulp of beer. “Mobs scare me, that’s all.”
“Yeah. You’ve told me. But it’s the only way to make things happen. Body power is all The People have. You know that.”
Now the peanut butter was making a knot in her stomach. Voices were yelling in her head, but she couldn’t understand what they were saying. She went to the door and watched the crowd in the living room grow, as though the whole campus knew this was where they could vent their disillusionment with the legends of their parents. This was where action would start. She could feel the energy rising in the room as anger turned to plans. “Where’s Jimmy?”
“I don’t know. Probably upstairs.”
“Damn, Brenda, you know …” she headed out of the room.
“I don’t have time to babysit, okay? That’s just not high on my list right now,” Brenda yelled after her as she mounted the stairs.
He was squatting in the corner of the bedroom banging his head against the wall, sobbing. Alicia swung around to the other speed-trippers, draped across the bed and chairs, their eyes gazing into some other world. One was jumping about, talking about the colors; another was playing an imaginary violin. There was no point in talking to any of them. She turned and ran down the stairs again.
“Brenda, come help. He’s high on speed. We have to get him back to the dorm.”
“I know, but if he doesn’t show up again, they’ll send him home.”
“All right, all right. How did we get hung with this kid, anyway?” Brenda grumbled, following Alicia up the stairs.
“We hung ourselves, Mama Brenda.” She led the way to the cowering shape in the corner.
“Yeah, but that was when he was a sweet kid.” She looked down at Jim’s long tangled locks, wrinkling her nose in disgust as Alicia pulled him back into a sitting position, revealing his bearded face and rolling blue eyes.
“Come on, Jimmy, up!” Alicia ordered. “Time to go home. You should be grateful,” she said as Brenda took his other arm. “At least he’s stoned and not drunk.”
Brenda gave a grunt. “Some revolutionaries, huh?” She looked about the room as they went out. “I remember my dad used to round them up from the bars, drunk as lords,” she grunted again as they hauled him down the stairs. “Now we collect them from speed pads. That’s progress, huh?” She pushed Jimmy up against the wall and took coats from the hook. Alicia pulled hers on with her free hand.
The March air slapped like a cold, wet rag across their faces.
“Hey, hey!” Jimmy cried in exuberance, lifting his head. Now they had to hold him back. “Look at those stars, will you?” he cried. “Never saw the stars before—never did, never did.” And he took off down the street, dragging the two of them on either side like anchors.
They flew into the dorm, and he stopped dead, sending them crashing into his backside. A middle-aged couple stood before them, the woman biting her lip, the man’s jowls sagging in weariness.
They took him home. Right there in front of them as they watched. Loaded all of his stuff out of his room and into the back of their pickup truck without saying a word to Alicia and Brenda.
Brenda strode back down the street cursing, her hands doubled into fists in her pockets.
“It’s okay,” Alicia kept saying. “He’s better off. He didn’t belong in that co-op, Brenda. He was going to kill himself.”
“So let the government kill him instead?” she yelled. “They’ll draft him in an instant!”
Her voice faded into the empty street. The wind picked up, and Alicia realized she was crying. All she could see was Jimmy, sitting on his bed, “What am I going to do, ‘Lis, what am I going to do?
To be Continued