As promised last week, here is the second part of the short story begun in last week’s blog—a writer’s view of the Sixties turmoil that, according to Ezra Klein and others, opened the split in the nation’s psyche. As I said before, these stories later became a part of my second novel, THE INHERITORS.
Martin Luther King was assassinated and the city burst into flames. The campus rang with protests and outrage. In the midst of it, Alicia found herself standing before the sanctuary at St. Julian’s Church, gazing at Maria whose face flickered in the light from the bank of votive candles. Alicia’s first love, José, proud in his police uniform, stood behind Maria, his arm around her, gazing over her shoulder at the tiny face of his newborn son. Behind them her parents stood flanked by her brothers, Tomas, Esteban and Diego, who would not meet her eyes. It was April 10, 1968; for three days sirens had shrieked.
They’d waited for Alicia to come in from the fires. To dig a church dress out from the back of her closet and find her way out of the boiling fury into this hushed place carved out of a rioting city, to attend the christening of Maria’s newborn son. They named him Miguel for José’s grandfather who started the family restaurant, saving his children from the stockyards where he’d spent his youth. Maria handed Alicia the child; she felt the his warmth against her belly, and all else ceased. Motherhood. This was motherhood. She looked up and saw its glow on her own mother’s face, on Maria’s mother, on Maria’s. Father Ramon stepped forward and encircled them with his voice, made a cross with oil on the baby’s forehead, sprinkled him with water, and in the middle of the burning city, Alicia became a godmother.
In the courtyard of the church, crocuses bloomed and forsythia showed yellow at its tips. It was spring. The sharpness of the April wind did not reach this place. For an hour, she was one of them again, surrounded, honored, belonging. Then Maria reached out and took her baby, and José and Alicia turned back to the smell of smoke and sirens. José nodded to her curtly without speaking, and she wanted to cry out to him in pain to remember the love she’d had for him—that anguished adolescent love he once returned. But he nodded as though she was some bare acquaintance, and stepped into his cruiser. She saw riot gear in the back seat, the armor her fellow marchers would pelt with rocks in the name of peace. The wind off the lake was ice-edged, but they ducked their heads into it and into the year that was snowballing into disaster.
* * *
The momentum of the crowds swept her on; she marched and marched, hoping the motion would carry her past the pictures in her head of Jimmy’s lost, bewildered gaze of José’s curt nod, of Diego’s bloodied face, of Maria holding her infant son. Over and over she told herself it was the price of change. Then, as spring turned to summer, Robert Kennedy fell in still another pool of blood, and it felt as though the nation was collapsing into civil war.
President Johnson’s betrayal pooled with the assassination of heroes, and a wave of outrage rose, sweeping beyond the campuses, joining other national movements, to become the behemoth of the presidential campaign. Not until the baking heat of August, when Alicia was marching on Michigan Avenue with a whole nation of protesters gathered at the Democratic Convention, did the taunting mob again cause her to bolt.
As she spun out of the mass, she found herself facing west. She had no aim but to walk straight ahead, west across the Loop and the river, south along Halsted, west again on 18th, like a carrier pigeon returning to roost. As she climbed the stairs to the upper room of her mother’s dress shop, she heard the scream of sirens from the television set instead of the chatter of sewing machines, and as she reached the top, she looked over the silent heads to the bloody battle she had just left.
Her mother turned and looked at her, her face a mask. Without a word, she turned and went into the office at the back of the room. Alicia followed.
“Close the door.”
“You were there, weren’t you?” Her mother nodded toward the set.
“Yes.” Alicia was about to add that she’d left, but she stopped, sensing from her mother’s face that excuses were too little, too late.
Her mother swung around to face the window, open to the airless August day. “Then you can’t come back.”
“What do you expect me to say?” She swung back, her face haggard. “They march past this shop spitting and sneering at us—at this whole world you come from! And you are with them. You looked down at Diego’s bleeding face—wasn’t that enough to stop you? Your friends out there curse José—you are godmother to his son, Alicia! And you think you can come home.” Her voice broke and she turned away, back to the window. “Well, you can’t.”
Alicia stood with her back against the wall, trying to catch her breath. “I thought you were against the war. You said …”
“What has that got to do with taunting Diego?” Her hands slapped against the table. “With stoning José?”
“I’m sorry.” Alicia pushed herself away from the wall. “I am! They get carried away, that’s all—they hate uniforms …”
“Don’t tell me that again, Alicia. I’m sick of hearing about the ‘establishment!’ What is that? The powerful? Who are you to tell us about fighting the powerful? You who weren’t even born when these people were striking, marching—to make things better for you—who now call us fools? And don’t tell me you were ‘carried away!’ Lynch mobs get carried away, too! You march with the mob, you do what the mob does—you’re guilty. That’s all. Now go.”
In the outer room, conversation fell silent as Alicia passed.
Alicia walked, not knowing where she was going. When she came to an ‘EL’ station, she climbed the stairs, and for endless hours rode train after train. She looked out toward Michigan Avenue, now empty of storm troops, and later looked down at streets of charred shops, fired by rage at Martin Luther King’s assassination. In the end, she found herself staring out at her own reflection beyond the rattling train window, but seeing only the faces of her mother, José, Diego, and Jimmy, rotating past each other in the night. And the face of Maria with her newborn son, standing lovely and vulnerable in the midst of them. Finally, she wandered back to the co-op where she lived because her brain could tell her nowhere else to go.
Lights were blazing again; the crowd had gathered in the living room to cheer the television review of the day, to rage at the brutality of the police billy-clubs. Alicia stared, wondering if that was José behind the riot shield, exploding at the last student to call him ‘pig.’ She turned and walked up the stairs, lay down on the bed and turned to face the wall, shame and fury fighting for control.
“Hey! What gives? You sick?” Brenda’s voice woke her from a heat-drugged sleep. She rolled over reluctantly. “What happened to you, anyway?”
“Went home. She threw me out.” Alicia sat up and put her feet on the floor.
“Yeah? Well, join the crowd.” Brenda turned and rummaged in the closet. Alicia sat numb, watching her. Brenda emerged with an armful of dirty laundry. “It’s the price of revolution, Alicia, for godsake.”
“Fuck change!” Brenda yelled. “Look at Martin Luther King. Look at Robert Kennedy! Dead!” She threw her clothes out the open door unto the landing. “Look at Jimmy Bailey!” She picked up a newspaper from the desk and threw it at her. It fell to the floor, and she was looking at a picture of Pvt. James Bailey, Jr., reported missing in Vietnam.
“Where did you get that?” It was the Salem newspaper.
“It came in the mail. Somebody’s idea of a joke.” Brenda buried her voice in the clothes she was collecting from the floor and disappeared down the steps.
* * *
Alicia moved out of the co-op.
“But they’ve discovered us!” Brenda protested, begging her not to leave. “They’ve joined us—hundreds and hundreds of them across the country. They’ve rejected the phoniness of the suburbs.”
“Their rebellion has nothing to do with us, Brenda. They don’t think it’s the same struggle at all.”
“But it is the same struggle; we’ll teach them that because we know.”
“Brenda, there are too many of them; you said so yourself.” Alicia suddenly saw the truth that had been there all along. She and Brenda were novelties. People to be asked out on dates to tell stories of city sin. Maybe even to be girlfriends if you wanted to look a true rebel. But teachers? Forget it.
“But that’s the power of it! The fun!”
“Not any more, Brenda. It’s out of control. It scares the hell out of me.” Alicia picked up her duffel bag and crossed the room, then put it down to give her friend a hug. “Don’t get hurt, okay?”
She found a mansion-turned-rooming-house on the other side of campus where students kept their heads in their books and made a great show of paying no attention to the marching and singing. In this house, there was no living room where students gathered. Here, she collapsed and stared at the ceiling night after night trying to figure out what had happened, how the exultation of being a part of things—important things—had cracked like an eggshell and dropped her into the void.
She spent hours wandering the streets, riding the ‘ELs, staring out into the lighted back windows of the tenements, walking the lakeshore among sunbathers catching the last of the summer’s sun, letting the city bleed back into her, the campus bleed out. When she returned, Brenda alone came to walk beside her, still begging her to return. The rest of her co-op comrades looked away when they saw her.
“They call me a sellout, don’t they?” Alicia asked her, looking at a group of protesters gathering outside the administration building.
“They don’t understand.”
“No. But I know you aren’t a sellout.”
“Aren’t you afraid to be seen walking with me?”
“Screw ‘em,” she muttered, staring at the sidewalk, her fists stuck deep into her jacket pockets.
But Brenda was lying; she was in agony, plain as day. So Alicia avoided her after that. She studied. She faced the other way. She sent her godson presents to bring back the feel of warmth against her belly. A baseball cap. A fire engine. A basketball. The leaves turned to gold and red, and the breeze became crisp and dry; she sat alone in her room, remembering the rush of liberation she’d felt when she fled from home the fall before. She told herself this was freedom; this was what independence was really like. Being alone. Being terrified, in the middle of the night, as the faces of all of the isolated rejects she’d ever known rose up to welcome her to their ranks. On other nights, she dreamt of her mother, alone in the kitchen, her footsteps going back and forth across the empty room. On those mornings, Alicia saw her mother’s face in the mirror, telling her again that she’d made her choice.
Then one Saturday morning, there Maria was, on the marble pillared portico that concealed the warren of rooms and broken hallways inside. She had a fat, rosy-cheeked baby in the stroller. Miguel. He was wearing the White Sox cap Alicia had sent him.
“I brought him to see you,” she said, and Alicia burst into tears.
They took little Miguel to Garfield Park and sat on a bench along the lagoon. The baby clapped at the ducks that gathered there, preparing for their long flight south.
Maria told her José had been hurt in the riots, hit in the shoulder by a flying brick. “He won’t talk about you,” she said, nor would her father. Diego and Josef were both in Vietnam. Diego wrote every week, but they hadn’t heard from Josef in a month.
“I was marching because they shouldn’t have to be there, Maria. I want you to know that.”
Maria nodded but didn’t answer. “What will you do now, Alicia?”
A gust of wind off the lake reminded them that October was ending, winter was coming. They walked back along the paths toward home. Miguel waved his arms as rollerskaters roared by, waving theirs.
“I’m studying to be a teacher.”
“You’re very brave.”
“No.” She remembered ducking under arms that were slinging rocks, pushing through bodies, to get out of that mob. To get home. “I’m not.” Was it cowardice or horror that had made her flee? Was there a difference? They’d arrived back at the marble pillared front of the massive stone house that had once was a symbol of Chicago’s wealth. Alicia picked up Miguel and hugged him.
“Shall I bring him again next Saturday?”
Alicia looked around the baby’s hands, which were tugging on her hair. “Does your mother know you came, Maria? And José?”
“Mama does. She tells your mother about the presents you send. She wants her to forgive you.”
She shook her head. “But I’m coming just the same.” She smiled.
Though out of print, paperback copies of THE INHERITORS are available from me for $10. Email me your address, and I’ll send you a PayPal invoice. Once that is complete, I’ll mail your book.