nthposition online magazine

The protesters

by George Sparling

[ fiction - april 04 ]

The large turnout in Eureka challenging the US war of aggression in Iraq wasn't unusual because Humboldt County had always been very liberal, at least since Reed moved here in 1974. The extraordinary event, which wouldn't get into print or electronic media, was that Malloy and Emma stood next to him as they heard one speaker after the other condemn America's militarism. They reunited for the first time since the early Seventies when their affinity group protected one another, and sometimes rampaged on New York City's streets during demonstrations.

After hearing every conceivable denunciation, the viler the harangue the better, Reed drove them north to Arcata where he lived and taught. Malloy had driven from Montana's Rocky Mountains, staying at the Arcata Hotel last night. Emma had flown into the local airport this morning from Seattle where she'd attended a conference on toxic waste. Both knew ecology more thoroughly than any professor from the local university, or so it seemed to Reed. Malloy, a wildlife sculptor, and Emma, an environmental law attorney, spoke intensely, elaborating how human culture and ecosystems required nurturing for both to survive. Talking not as ex-lovers they once were, but as planetary caregivers armed with both facts and wisdom. Never had so many words been delivered in Reed's car with as much velocity and animation during that seven-mile journey along 101 winding around Humboldt Bay.

In Arcata, he stopped off, buying two bottles of Chardonnay and sharp cheddar before they went to his home. And if that wouldn't make things mellow, his bottle of Johnny Walker Black would.

Contemptuous of that word "mellow" ever since he heard it uttered on the Upper West Side by a Berkeley radical, he no longer sneered at it. Reed knew he'd jettisoned Right-Coast and had become Left-Coast when he used that word causally in history class at the university. Immediately self-conscious, he scanned the classroom, ferreting out students who might smirk at that unguarded moment. When he found none, he accepted his new terra firma and that he'd made a clean break with the old world, standing firmly on California soil. Recently divorced, his wife and two children no longer around, Reed could at last could entertain persons in the sprawling Victorian house rather than have its void suck life from him.

Emma's short hair, its sheen neither fully silver-grey nor dark, her mouth between a full smile and merely opened: Reed found ambiguity intriguing, a sort of architectural Mannerism where no one style dominated.

She strolled through the spacious house, commenting on every large Edward Hopper print hung in expensive frames, one in each room. He heard Malloy's heavy boots with Vibram soles trail behind them on the hardwood floor, trying to break into their conversation, but couldn't. He then went downstairs while in Reed's upstairs bedroom Emma remarked she'd never known Hopper to be so remorseless and sinister, referring to a painting hung opposite Reed's double bed. He felt drawn to it also, the nonexistent vanishing point making it disturbing and unbearable if viewed too long.

"Does that dark tunnel going nowhere remind you of New York?" she asked.

"Isn't fear of the new always dark?"

When United For Peace and Justice announced March 20 as the day of protest all over the country, Reed did a people search on the Web and found their email addresses. He would've choked up, his dry, uncontrollable lips unable to conceal trembling words if he phoned them. They hadn't the slightest notion that his fingers achieved Parkinson-like tremors with each keystroke.

She had been his first, but it lasted only a week. Victor, Malloy's close friend, moved in with Emma. After Vic went underground, Malloy took his place. Special circumstances for Vic, but not Malloy. Vic had instilled Malloy with revolution. Reed's stature diminished. Emma looked at him differently. Left out of the revolutionary vanguard, Reed travelled west and learned a trade. Teaching history.

A fugitive, the FBI placed Vic on the Ten Most Wanted after Vic and others blew up a small branch of a large bank whose investments included war profiteering. For two decades Emma and her politically connected, wealthy friends protected him in safe houses. Finally dumping Malloy after three years, offering a hands-on support network for her renegade lover, Emma and Vic took up together. They scoured America, traversing the land for the frailest category, survival. When Reed heard on NPR that Vic had been found dead, he wept, his heart incapable of telling for whom the grief.

Reed dwelled on that cache memory from the mid-Nineties as he emailed them, heartened their response time was less than an hour. Reed wanted to remind them that, finally, he'd settled down in a place he could call his own. He'd wear a newly bought forest-green sweatshirt with the word "HUMBOLDT" written in gold to demonstrate that fact.

 

Mid-afternoon in March on the north coast, brief sunlight slanted through the mullioned windows onto the mandala-patterned carpet. Malloy's shadow covered most of the design. The second bottle of Chardonnay was empty, and Reed went to the kitchen, coming back with three clean glasses and the Johnny Walker bottle. He slid in five Tom Waits CDs.

Malloy looked outside, drinking the booze, and saw a skateboarder almost lose his balance on the sidewalk. He mocked the skateboarder, referring to him as a dweeb. Reed corrected him, stating that a dweeb blended dwarf and feeble. Skateboarders, like their boards, were made of tougher stuff.

Malloy shifted away from the window and walked toward Emma who peered downward, brushing imaginary dirt from her jeans. Reed stood very close to him, understanding for the first time he was a few inches taller than Malloy. Reed's height diminished Malloy more than memory ever could. Emma smiled, looking up at them both. Malloy slide-stepped away, checking out Reed's bookcase. Her eyes stayed locked on Reed, which surprised him.

They talked about the ultra-secret Office of Special Plans in the Pentagon established to supplant normal channels, giving green lights to the Iraq invasion. The conversation lagged. No more convivial, energised talk between Malloy and Emma about the environment. More Tom Waits. Misery is the river of the world. The earth died screaming. Except for Tom singing low in the background, a hush spread through the house. Reed recalled Cicero: When they remain silent, they cry out.

Suddenly, Emma said Vic had inherited from his grandfather an antique Tiffany floor lamp. His grandfather, a proud reader of history, used its prestigious glow to read while young Victor listened on his lap. On West 92nd Street, under that same lamp, living with Emma, Vic read about the assassination of Frank Steunenberg, the ex-governor of Idaho, and how the US government tried to frame Big Bill Hayward, a founder of the IWW, but failed to convict him. His grandfather was a confirmed, life-long Wobbly.

Innocent when you dream, sang Waits, part way through Emma's flashback. Reed hated the irony, so he turned the music off.

"He died right next to me in that shit dive on Pioneer Square in Seattle," Malloy said.

"He didn't have to," she said. "I shouldn't have taken time off for law school."

"Vic always was safe, he wasn't ever threatened." She threw cold liquor eyes at him.

"He only drank beer up 'till then," she said. "On your watch he beamed the bone."

Malloy's face reddened. To regain composure, he pulled up the rocking chair, sitting very near her. She looked annoyed at Reed's faraway gaze. It suggested disbelief. How could Reed be so naïve?

"I always assumed Vic was killed or committed suicide," Reed said. "What's 'beaming the bone' mean?"

"Smoking crack. Lover man here was Vic's supplier."

"If I didn't, Vic would've gone to rock houses himself. Too dangerous." Emma listened to Malloy as he explained that Vic was a thirst monster, torch cooking devil's dick with butane lighters, buying two for nines, searching for more twinkle, always on a mission, a binger weightless on cloud.

"You like the poetry, or what?" Emma said.

She poured another drink, gulping it too fast, so instead of choking she spat the booze out as a fire eater might flame. She sprayed Johnny Walker onto Malloy's face and shirt. His expression registered shock and fright. Dripping, he walked toward the large window overlooking the street. He observed the nearby homes, their doors bordered with glass, and high, thick bushes surrounding each residence.

"Homes here would be easy prey for determined crack heads to break into," he said.

"There hasn't been even a mugging in Arcata since I've lived here," Reed said. "Maybe never."

"Shut up, Reed," she said. "Break ins?" Malloy sucked up his breath, exhaling slowly.

"We were talking about fanatic base heads, weren't we?" Malloy leafed through the last issue of the New Left Review he picked up on an end table.

"How can you live with yourself, Malloy?" she asked.

Malloy tried to regain high ground, detailing how Vic went berserk one day, rolling across the floor, screaming about snakes and insects crawling under his skin.

"Formication. It's called formication," she said. When Emma first touched Reed long ago, such a sweet gesture, placing her hand on his solar plexus, tears came to him. Reed thought about that simple touch and couldn't reconcile it with the word, formication.

Malloy tottered around the living room, imbibing faster. Vic vomited dry heaves, he was so skinny, his nose bled, he couldn't stay still, kept moving all the time. But he'd power enough to use the bathroom. When Vic was gone too long, he checked and saw him hacking his wrist with the Swiss Army knife he found in Malloy's shaving kit.

"A knife? Chrissake, why didn't you just kill him yourself," Emma said. Reed hadn't heard this tone before, but apparently Malloy did, reminding her to take her blood pressure pills. She clunked her glass hard on the oak table, liquor splashing over the rim.

"Careful," Malloy said.

Emma swiftly rose from the wicker chair, staggered a bit, then righted herself, snatching the bottle and smashing it hard against the table. On the second whack, it broke. She stepped rapidly toward Malloy. She was about to cram the jagged glass into his face, but Reed ran over and pulled her arm away with all his strength. He couldn't believe a 120-pound woman could amass so much fury and force within just a few seconds. Malloy joined him, pushing her onto her back, grappling the bottle from her fingers. They remained frozen for a few clock ticks: Emma breathless, Malloy shocked, Reed scared.

Slowly, after she'd been securely disarmed and the bottle kicked by Malloy to the other side of the room, she rose in gradual stages, gaining equilibrium. Malloy released his pressure on her wrists, and Reed looked around, searching for anything resembling a weapon. Then, they assumed their former positions seated in the same chairs. Each rigid, it took a couple of minutes of silence to re-establish themselves.

"I read the ER report," she said. "It said his heart stopped, the paramedics couldn't resuscitate him. What were you thinking?" Bloody spittle popped from her mouth with each syllable.

"He kept asking for more DOA, " he said. "If I didn't get it, he'd go out himself."

Except for sparrows in the bushes, quiet.

"'DOA'? Who are you, the rider on the Pale Horse?" More red saliva flew through the air. Where was the spittoon when you really needed one? She started to rise, but Reed stepped over, placing a hand of each shoulder, pushing her back down.

"I even sold my sculptures to buy him rock," Malloy said. Reed thought of George Segal exhibits. Collage, friable effigies easily unglued: Malloy, himself.

"Didn't you believe he could've changed? He could've stopped being a dope friend," she said.

"He lost his drive," Malloy said. "Vic told me the world didn't deserve another chance."

"You turned him into a geeker," she said. "He lost what made Vic, Vic."

Malloy left without closing the door. His wake breezed past them. They heard his SUV rip down the street.

Sometime later, Reed put in a CD. Bom-Bom the truth shall come give the corporation some complication.

"Vic would've liked Bom-Bom," Emma said.

Reed took her by the hand and they walked upstairs. They made love in Reed's bedroom. In the morning, that painting didn't look so merciless.