Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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Kevin Murray, retired, one-time police chief of a small midwestern city, turned on his electric typewriter and began his third letter of the day. “Dear Abbie Hoffman, It says in the newspapers you killed yourself because you weren’t getting enough attention. Makes sense. More sense than most of what you said. . . .”
“God’s own sieve,” Murray called himself, leaking from every orifice, even words, words piling up, tumbling and jostling in his head, no one listening or answering; hence the letters, ten-page letters to the newspapers, to second cousins he wouldn’t tip a cap to if they met on the street (they never answered), to the President, his cabinet, and the Security Council.
“Dear Abbie . . .”
Murray reread the greeting, savoring the words he’d wanted to say to Abbie all these years. He glanced up at the TV which kept him company each day. There on the screen was a huge square, Tiananmen Square, and a young man, smiling as if the world were his, standing in front of a tank.
Outside Murray’s window, his wife and daughter and granddaughter — Katherine, Kathy, and Linda — fought their annual crab grass battle. He could smell their roses. The sky above them was as blue as one of Katherine’s plates. Soon they would come in and make dinner. Chicken as usual. He knew that much about what was going on. They’d laugh and talk, Katherine reporting a success with her parish committees, Kathy repeating gossip from her law office, Linda announcing an A on a paper about Camus, none of them looking at him. “Linda,” his wife would say, “Please ask your grandfather to pass the gravy.”
Murray stared at the young man in the square, so far away, and yet only six paces from his chair. Slowly he pulled the paper from his typewriter and began again:
Abbie killed himself because he was lonely and left out. His friends said he got tired. They had a memorial for him and charged five dollars for the program. He should have died thirty-five years ago. Before he learned to use our kids.
Even if he were alive he wouldn’t read my letter. So, Michael, I’ll write to you.
Abbie was fifty-two. I’m seventy.
I know Michael isn’t your name. If I knew it, I couldn’t pronounce it. Michael is what I call all the young men who stand up to the old.
This boy in China, does he know about Abbie? Does he know Abbie lived underground for years, like me in my own brick bungalow?
Michael, I never could understand Abbie. He was against pollution and money. He wanted total disarmament, beginning with the police. Tell that to your big boss. He wanted everyone to have fun and make love all the time with whomever they wished. Whomever. Abbie knew his grammar. These days, no one even recognizes whom.
Peace in Vietnam. I was for that. Katherine — that’s my wife — used to say I’d do anything someone in authority told me, but that’s not true. I chose my authority. Ike. I chose Ike. It was Ike who said we shouldn’t send troops to Asia.
Michael, I went to war to help pick up French dominoes. Second time through for good old Uncle Sam, and I didn’t think we should do it again. The French claimed the Vietnamese loved them, loved their language and their schools, but even the French couldn’t handle the Vietnamese. So, I was with Abbie on peace.
It was his language I hated. The language and drugs, telling kids to steal the book he wrote, the sex. I went through the Battle of the Bulge. I never talked that way or did any of those things.
At first, Abbie was nothing but a bee sting in the butt.
All these years, thinking about Abbie, I can’t blame him for what I did. Father John says I wasn’t ready for Kathy — that’s my daughter, although I’m sure you can’t remember names, standing there in front of that tank — Father John says I wasn’t ready for my daughter to grow up and move away from me and my ideas. Father John says I’m not a pig. Father John says I just did a bad thing. Sometimes I believe him.
I miss the old times, Michael. Sunday mornings, all of us safe in my marriage bed, safe within the boundaries I knew and understood.
Katherine, my beloved, musty sweet with my semen, Kathy, between us, our eldest, our only surviving daughter, Kathy, soft, soft, fragrant as a greening apple, and beside me the twins, acrid as the collie that slept in their bed; on Katherine’s side, Brian, who needed a diaper change, then Jamie, who’d already been into the peanut butter.
Singing, “Tu-tu-tu-turbulent,” a ballad of love to teach the children beautiful words, their voices so high and sweet I had to wipe my eyes on the pillow, Katherine saying, “You’re a sentimental Irishman and I love you.”
“Ono-ono-ono mato-mato-mato po-eeeee-i-a.”
A Gregorian chant.
Only Kathy could say onomatopoeia.
Michael, everything changed when my daughter went to the university. She stopped listening to my stories. She lost her language. She said power structure, do your own thing, your problem, shit, fuck. Last week’s lettuce on a limp line.
And her friends. They ran to march, to sit-in, to riot, as if to a picnic. They called their president a fascist because he couldn’t stop the war. Spoiled-brat Savonarolas. Revolution for the hell of it.
They lounged over Katherine’s good food. They slurped soup. They made long-distance telephone calls without asking permission. They talked peace and justice for the people and bad-talked telephone operators. They never looked at me, never listened to me, because I was a cop.
Turbulent, lights flashing, doors slamming, steps in the night.
Michael, I turned to my books, but I needed someone to listen, someone to answer. One breakfast, I said to Kathy, “I’m up to the H’s. Hayakawa. 412 H 32.” She used to be proud of me, reading straight through our public library, just as I was proud to have her at the university. I said, “Hayakawa claims the word is not the thing. I’m trying to convince my men. Some punk calls them a pig, they fight.” My voice was too loud after the long silence.
Kathy said, “You should read current stuff, Dad.”
She was wearing something gray, she called it a poncho, a sort of pup tent she’d made from an old chenille bedspread, and a big red button that said SHIT. She was reading a pamphlet about Vietnam.
I said, “No daughter of mine goes to school with such a button.”
Katherine wouldn’t tell me where Kathy’d gone. She knelt in her garden all day and went to bed with muddy knees. I shouted. She said, “If you’d listen you’d know.” She telephoned her friends. “I’m like a bridge between hostile shores. Trampled.”
That night, I reached out to comfort her, touching her breasts, moving down to sweetness. She locked her sewing room door against me.
In China, do you study Cambodia? You probably weren’t even born when our country bombed Cambodia. You look about two years older than Linda, my granddaughter, Kathy’s daughter. My wife says it’s a miracle Linda got born right, the way I looked at Kathy when she came home six months pregnant. Two years later, Michael, two years, one month, eighteen days, ten hours, and six minutes later.
Seven days after Kathy left — April 30 — we bombed Cambodia. Then some university kids at Kent State got shot. At Kathy’s university, five thousand of the seven thousand students went on strike. Not millions, the way it is with you there in the square. Five thousand.
I’ve watched the students march in Tiananmen Square, big red flags swirling and dipping, like old paintings from old revolutions.
At Kathy’s university that early May, so long ago, red mini-dresses flapped at sorority house windows. Red flags and bedspreads hung from the dormitories. “Our bedspread revolution,” I called it. My wife did not smile. Mothers twisted red yarn in their babies’ curls. Professors folded scraps of red in their handkerchief pockets. Even the dogs had red ribbons on their hind legs. Katherine wore a black armband. In our own small square, in front of the War Memorial, students screamed and fell, pretending they were Cambodians killed by American soldiers. Headlines in the college daily said, WE ARE YOUR CHILDREN. PLEASE COME TALK TO US ABOUT THE WAR.
Day after day, answering the phone, angry citizens calling us Abbie Hoffman names, shouting, “Get those kids back to their books.”
Only one of them, a woman, said, “Let them mourn.”
The mayor and even the merchants agreed we should let the kids keep the barricade that blocked the highway through campus. Pure Victor Hugo. Black flags. An American flag, upside down. Puny kids, les misérables? I couldn’t understand where they found the muscle to tear up the iron fencing around the campus. An “open campus,” that’s what they said they wanted.
Vans and campers where just a week before crocuses had bloomed. Screaming kids, day and night, doped-out girls like my daughter, syphilis and gonorrhea to come. Abbie called himself a Groucho Marxist. Was he laughing? A holocaust of innocents, I call it now.
We finally had to go in and get the kids out of Tech to protect the machines. Tech’s walls are gray, and behind them rise the library towers that always made me nostalgic for Dublin’s Gothic towers I might never see again. Even back then, I knew I was not meant to be a priest.
Students lay on the cement, red and tan and green spills under a darkening sky. Fifty of them. From the fourth floor, a youngster lowered a bucket. Three blacks in caftans filled it with tins of coffee and packages of hamburgers. A girl screamed.
I tried not to step on the bodies. One of my men raised a fist. “She called me a pig.”
“Only a word,” I said. I wished I still believed it. Kathy said nothing I knew was true any more.
“Daddy, you’re not like the others. You’re gentle with hippies.”
“Like those people in the Middle Ages you told me about. They sang and danced and beat themselves and died.”
“Because of plague, famine, war, rust on wheat, like the stuff kids smoke now.”
“Daddy, now it’s the Bomb, the Bomb People. Why can’t you see? We want to take power from the people who pay Tech to invent better ways to kill the innocent.”
Inside Tech, mimeographs clattered. Faces glistened, soft as church-supper cabbage. I lifted a girl and she hung limp. She looked as if she might pick up her books and go home and make brownies. Eyes and hair like my daughter’s. Red hose. But not clean. She’d been there three days.
Kathy had red hose freshman year. Her mother whispered as if telling her beads, “Mortgage payments. Doctors’ bills. Church pledges. School fees. College tuition. Not fancy stockings.”
Now Kathy wore dirty jeans and a red button. I promised a novena if I did not find her. “Spare me, Lord, in mercy spare.”
Chairs and desks barricaded the dean’s office. A young man with hair like a used mop said, “You like bein’ a cop?”
He spat in my face. I stepped around him.
“If you’d only listen,” Kathy used to say. “People are more important than laws. Just listen. Say something kind, something human, so I can believe again.”
The dean’s office was book-lined, hot as hell’s mouth, full of kids and the stench of feet and fried onions. His desk was cleared, with only a large leather-bound book and a rough crystal inkstand, and behind the desk, Kathy and one of the young men who used to hunch over his food and eat before Kathy’s mother could sit down.
My daughter’s glasses were dusty gray. (I used to wash her glasses every morning before school.) Her eyes were soft like her mother’s after loving. Her chin rose in some victory I did not know. She giggled. She said, “You remember Michael.”
His neck seemed to have thickened, but he still had a student’s eyes, melting chocolate, like you and your friends. He’d grown a grandfather mustache, but any grandfather I knew would have fought to the death rather than wear a necklace. Michael’s was gold. Revolutionary gold? He was smoking one of the dean’s big cigars. Looking straight at me, making sure I saw, he ground it into the book. Slowly he put his arms around my daughter and stroked her breast.
Sunday mornings, all of us in my marriage bed, Katherine, my own dear love, Kathy . . .
“Out of the depths I cry to you, 0 Lord, Lord, hear my voice.”
I unfastened the handcuffs at my belt. Michael, Kathy’s Michael, reached for the inkpot. She took it from him. Someone cut the lights. In the abrupt darkness, beams of light from the police cars outside cut across my daughter’s face. Red. White. Red. White.
I said, “The others have come quietly. Now you.”
Kathy smiled, but her fingers trembled on the inkpot. Behind her five boys and girls linked arms and sang that song I’d tried to like. WE SHALL OVERCOME.
They seemed far away, moving slowly as if underwater. One of my men raised his club. The line toppled toward Kathy. I reached out to protect her.
Michael said, “Don’t touch my girl.”
Kathy said, “Fuck you.”
Ink in my eyes, ink in my nostrils, musty sweet and acrid. I raised the handcuffs.
Michael, Kathy’s nose never did heal properly. Michael, Michael, out there, standing in front of the tank, smiling in your righteousness, please step aside. Step aside for me.