It was an accident. A mistake. A big one. And they’ll have to live with it. Never tell the friends they’ll make. The women they’ll be with. No one. Not another soul will know.
It’s the declaration he issues after he and Willie stop arguing, after they agree they have futures only if they zip their lips. Shut them tight for good. One talks, the both of them go down, swallowed into the ritual and rule of the penal system. And they don’t want that. So they shake on it. Lock hands and eyes with the same firm conviction they’ve done over the years. Even if before it was in recognition of their common cause and radical brotherhood.
The bathroom door opens. A mist of steam trails him into the room, a towel wrapped around his waist. Bruises on his face and ribs are a purple-grayish tone, colors more fitting for a tie-dyed t-shirt than human flesh.
Willie’s on the bed. He watches an old movie in black-and-white. He looks at it too. Thinks it’s from the 1940s, though it might be earlier, or later. Not much later. It doesn’t matter. He doesn’t know the names of any of the actors or actresses in it. Though a flash of recognition tells him the dark, suave one with the thin mustache is Errol Flynn. Errol, or whomever it is, is in the midst of a heartfelt discussion in an elegant parlor with a beautiful blonde woman he knows very well. She sits at one end of a flower-patterned couch, he on the edge of the deep chair across from her. They’re separated by a table with a vase of flowers and some magazines.
“Don’t leave me.” The blonde woman tells Errol. She clasps her hands in front of her as if making a plea to the almighty to spare someone she knows with a terrible disease.
“It’s what I have to do.” Errol says this with a slight but firm shake of his head.
“But this can’t be more important than love, can it?” the blonde woman says.
Errol tips his head at the rug. And this is his answer to the question.
He dresses. Sits at the small, cheap, ashen-stained desk and starts the discussion about their plan, their story, their lie. Notes the crux of their conversation in his spiral notebook, sentence fragments and imperatives he writes on the blank pages that follow Neil’s ten ingredient, sixteen step pipe bomb recipe. Instructions taken from the manual with the blue cardstock cover he’d examined a few times at Neil’s, more interested in the hand-drawn diagrams than the large typeface paragraphs and numbered lists.
The details he’d noted that afternoon and night are still clear in his memory. The fiction they’d devised on which other fictions about them were based. He’s sorry he’d torn those pages into tiny pieces in a Washington D.C. alley the next day. Tossed them in a stinking, sun-baked garbage dumpster behind a bar. A black guy in a dirty smock had looked him over after he came out the back of the restaurant next to it to finish his cigarette, to get a moment for himself. Gave the impression it wasn’t the first time he’d seen someone not from the bar throw shit back there, and it wasn’t any of his business. Willie waited out front, illegally parked, the engine running, his fingers tapping at the steering wheel when he got back.
Their incontrovertible action transforms from regret and sorrow into a cold, logistical puzzle they plan to solve to save their sun-baked hides and adult lives from the rapists, murderers and thieves they might otherwise have to share them with. With amazement he sees how fast conscience takes a back seat to self preservation. The brutal reality of their actions are already covered over as shovels of dirt will soon bury the janitor’s casket.
They draw rationalizations and inspiration from their readings. The peripatetic lives of those they admire, Trotsky, Che. All the others who’d plotted and fought for people they might otherwise have ignored and in doing so acted as they needed to, the consequences of which weren’t always pleasant.
They redefine themselves. Questions and answers. What do we tell our families we’re doing? Nothing right now. What do we tell Diane? Staying on the road a while. Going to another strike. Quitting our jobs. When do we call her? Later on. How long do we stay away? Month? Forever? Determine this as we go along. Do we change our names? Only if we find out they’re looking for us and we have to go underground. Do we tell Neil? No. It’ll mean talking about it and we don’t want to do that with anyone.
And they don’t call him. But if anyone knows they’re certain he’s the one who’ll read about it in a piece buried deep in the Sentinel. Recognize the modus operandi. Yes, a line of untended trooper cars makes an enticing target in response to the sanctioned brutality inflicted on four hundred desperate textile workers. A janitor was killed by accident. Well, the ends and means aren’t good or bad but judged solely on how they further the people’s revolution. Would he gasp at the end of it? When he envisions them diving head first into the underground. Or would he be scared they’d lead the authorities back to him? The guy who influenced us. Publishes Polar Star… Remember the cars at the back of the Schaeffer Hotel? Burnt toast. Well… Guess what? That’s right. His idea.
After three or four hours of rolling, tossing sleep, he on the box spring, Willie on the mattress on the floor, they read about their work in the Greencastle Ledger. Two men from the union had been taken in for the murder of a janitor and destroying public property. Six trooper cars purchased in the past year, it says. A bit of information more important than the missing details of the janitor’s life. Janitor’s are cheaper to replace, he comments. Don’t require asking voters for more tax money.
They’re together, standing on the walkway in front of the mall, wearing the plastic sunglasses Willie bought in the drugstore. And what a sight they must be. Radicals incognito. A scene that might spawn a comic strip if the circumstances were different and one of them had artistic leanings.
No, they shake their heads, flush with shortened breaths. They don’t believe the police are sure they have the right people in jail. They had to make an arrest. A political move. Pressure’s on from all kinds of folks: black, white, important and regular. So they did something. What are the civil rights of two textile workers when the authority of the state’s been attacked and its citizens are angry? Not much. Law and order has to be maintained. Must be. They’re sure the truth of the worker’s alibis will soon be confirmed. They’ll be set free. Real killers sought. They believe this as they believe a ferocious, determined undertaking will involve a dozen detectives and a supporting cast dusting fingerprints, testing samples of explosive materials, peering into microscopes at hairs and other human bits found around their campsite. They can’t hold two innocent men very long. Or bring them to trial…
He lets out a slow heaving sigh that empties his lungs. “Where to?”
The twentieth time this question’s been aired.
“Let’s talk as we drive.”
He folds the paper, drops it in an orange barrel, adjusts his sunglasses.
They go east for no other reason than it’s familiar.
The night in the two-dollar campground in the dark, blue hills of southern West Virginia is anxious and uneasy. They down a six-pack apiece to dull their fear, boredom and regret. The next night’s spent in another campground fifty miles further on. A swim in a cold lake is a sobering activity before another six beer drunk.
This is where they end up the next afternoon. He parks on a rundown street in the Northeast Quadrant. They walk to the address that an irritated Diane had read to him over the phone the night before. Charged the call to the number on 21st Street that she’ll end up paying for.
“Be back soon,” he said.
“Won’t be here.”
“Where will you be?”
“Find me. If you can.” She hung up. Never mentioned the $300 she’d wired two mornings before to a Western Union office in Columbus.
How long ago it seemed since he’d first locked his eyes on her. Flirted with her. Smelled her. Fingered her hair. Embraced her with emotions that sent oxygen to all parts of his body so he might have floated away had she not clasped him with both arms.
The digital thermometer over the entrance of a bank flashes this number. The sun drills into their exposed flesh, the reason for his headache. A drumming behind his eyes he knows won’t go away any time soon. Or is it from the beer they haven’t stopped drinking since the altercation with the trooper?
They eat lunch in a diner. Share sections of The Post. An op-ed piece ties the heat wave to the opening of a $100 million government building, kept at a cool sixty-eight degrees. The author refers to it as the City of Oz for its privileged tenants. And in different circumstances the statement would surely begin a day-long critique. One about the Caucasian tourists wearing patriotic t-shirts with imprints of the flag or the Washington Monument. About the steady flow of Caucasian men and women dressed in gray pants or skirts and starched, short-sleeved white shirts hurrying to their cool offices in one of the Departments where they push paper describing the Byzantine rules, guidelines and laws that ninety-nine-point-nine percent of the public will never know, understand, or care about, but will pay for in myriad ways. About the non-Caucasians hosing down the sidewalks the Caucasians walk on. Cutting the grass they sit on to rest or eat a picnic lunch. Watering the rows of tulips that please them to look at. Emptying the barrels they fill with cans, bottles, napkins and paper plates into small vehicles driven by more non-Caucasians.
Under different circumstances their first trip to the Capital would be like this. Questions and answers coming on rapid fire. What had the marches, rioting and burning in the Sixties changed? Nothing. King issued his famous speech from those steps right over there. But those were words and aggressive actions spoke louder, much louder. It’s an immutable revolutionary law. Under different circumstances his head would turn like a turret as he scoped the surroundings. The clean, bleached stone and concrete buildings on both sides of the street. The large and small monuments sticking up here and there like gravestones. Clogs of traffic and beeps of horns at every intersection.
“Rome rebuilt,” he’d say about it.
“Athens copied and modernized,” Willie’d add.
“Disneyland on the Potomac,” he’d say.
An up-and-coming street of refurbished brownstone buildings. New sidewalks. Trees planted. The third time they’ve climbed the front steps of number 422. Workday’s done. Nine-to-fivers coming home to live their own lives a while instead of the government’s.
He pokes the first floor buzzer. Once. Twice. A white curtain’s pulled aside and he’s glad to see a surprised, skeptical smile break like a wave on Robert’s face. A look that reassures him they are who he thinks they are before Westmoreland, not who they know they are after it.
Robert holds the door open. “Suppose I’ll have to let you in. Though the rainbow on Peter’s cheek makes me think I shouldn’t.”
“Ran into some rough b-ball. City game. Tough bastards with extra elbows.”
“Mixing it up were you?”
Robert wears tan slacks, a white t-shirt hanging over the waist, brown socks, no shoes. Trim hair and the small, thin frame of his glasses make him seem a straight man on a mission to be someone. The facade might be modified, but behind it he’s still the same serious, wired Robert.
“Thought we’d look you up,” he says.
“Glad you did.” Robert sounds as if he’s telling the truth. They’ve been through a lot together, after all. The study group. Classes. Arguments. Games of hoop. “Was expecting you at some point, but not this soon. It’s cool though.”
“Be honest with us,” Willie says.
“Nice to see you guys. But you can’t stay tonight. My roommate’s due back later on. He gets edgy when there’s strange white people around.”
“Well it’s good to see you even if we can’t.” He turns his eyes away from Robert. Sees the strap on one of Willie’s sandals is worn, ready to break.
“You were expecting to drop in without warning and stay here a few days. Put a good use on me. I know you two very well, remember?”
He says, “Going to camp outside the city. There’s a few places listed in our books, to the north.”
“Looks like you’ve been sleeping in a lot of campgrounds. Come on in. Enjoy the a.c. a while. We’ll chew over the bad old days and drink the beer you brought.”
The hallway’s lit by an exposed, round fluorescent bulb. Robert shows them into the air conditioned-cool living room that becomes the dining room without any wall or partition. He opens the curtains just enough so they can see the street traffic and still keep out the direct sunlight.
He and Willie sit on the couch. Pop open cans of beer as naturally as they open their mouths.
“Nice item.” He spanks the couch’s arm.
“So this is what’s expected of soon-to-be law students?” he says.
“Only of those who can’t afford to buy it outright.”
Robert leaves them alone. Goes into the kitchen and carries out three tall glasses and a king-sized bag of potato chips. “So why you here? The nice weather? Got a tip this was the in place to be for July? Over a hundred today, you know. I’d get a better travel agent. Should be in the hills. Or near water.”
Robert sits across from them, on a fake leather chair in line with the breeze blowing out of the a. c.
“We’ve been,” he says.
“Going to be tourists for a while,” Willie says.
“Where you working?” he says.
“That where they design programs to suppress real learning?” he says.
“Damn, you guys never let up on it,” Robert says.
“Not answering, so it must be true,” he says.
A slow, disbelieving laugh from Robert makes a few sputtering sounds. His eyes move from him to Willie. Fix back on his cheek. He holds his lips apart. Keeps the whites of his lower teeth in view. Shakes his head slow. It’s this movement that makes him think Robert knows they’ve done something that sends them to him. Thus something big and bad. He knows he’s aware of it during the fragmented conversation that ensues about the study group, a few of Hayes’ more memorable lectures, the career movements of former classmates, their own lives and expectations. Robert knows from their terrified eyes. The grimaces of their mouths they can’t straighten. The way they talk to each other with nervous body language. The long contemplative pauses as they inspect the amoebae patterns on the couch, the framed black-and-white pictures of King and Ali on the walls, the wood African objects on the tables. Mostly he knows from the way they seem to need him. Never needed him before. Never needed anyone.
Robert says, “Heard some things about you two. Wheel of the rumor mill’s grinding you up.”
He says, “What’s the word out there on the street?”
“Need to ask me?”
“Just wondering if you heard the truth or some nasty falsehoods?” Willie says.
“From the looks on your faces I haven’t heard all of it. Don’t think anyone else has either. Those are ugly bruises. You guys done something I should know about?”
“Didn’t do anything. Some bad-boy b-ball, like I said,” he says. “Elbows-a-flyin, me cryin.”
This is the first mistake. Maybe he isn’t very good at this hide-and-seek game.
“What’s anything?” Robert’s up. He walks into the dining area, turns and faces them. “That’s not hoop, unless the guy was kicking you when you were on the ground. I know it’s serious, whatever it is. You’re not denying it. This police trouble?”
He puts his beer on the table. Both hands free, he tosses them out. “Nothing, we’re on the road a while. That’s all. You know that.”
“No, something’s up. It’s all over you. Why you’re here. I know you guys. Are you being followed? If you are they’ll think I had something to do with it, with you, the study group. I don’t want any part of that. That’s over. In fact, you’re going to have to leave. Now. Sorry. I hope I’m wrong. I don’t know a thing about what you did. But if I were you I’d get lost. Get very lost so no one can find you.”
They stand too. Get ready to leave. Show him they know he knows. Show him his suspicions are right on the mark. You’ll make a good lawyer, he wants to tell Robert. Lots of money coming your way soon.
“Take the beer,” Robert says.
“It’s yours, keep it,” Willie says.
Robert waves his hands as if he’s playing a children’s game. “No, I don’t want anything from you guys.” He turns away and goes into the kitchen. Comes back with the brown bag they brought it in and drops the pack into it. “You two need it. I know that much.” He hands it to Willie. Willie puts it on the table.
“Sorry.” He sticks his hand out and Robert meets it. “We haven’t done anything that would interest the cops. You have to know that. Everything’s all right.”
“Sure hope it’s all true.”
“Believe it,” Willie says.
“I do.” Robert aims a finger at the bag. “That’s yours. Take it.”
“We’ll be back to see you sometime,” Willie says.
“No,” Robert says. “Don’t do that. Not for a long, long while.”
They’re out on the street. The temperature’s a few degrees cooler but not enough to matter much. He feels its oppressive weight with each movement.
He walks beside Willie, the bag of beer under his arm. Knows that in one hour they made themselves obvious to Robert. Told him everything but the details. Right now they’d do the same to anyone they know. That knew them as well as Robert does.
They head toward the dome, drawn to it as they’d be to an icon of a religion they’ve given themselves over to. Follow the pathways of the mall toward the obelisk. Around them, hundreds of sweaty, red-skinned tourists buy hot dogs, sodas and souvenirs from the vendors.
“What do we do?” he says.
This question continues to be repeated without satisfactory answer.
“Go somewhere, talk, but not around here, this entire place feels bugged, and I don’t mean with roaches,” Willie says.
They leave the central core of the City of Oz. Return to the neighborhoods where men drink bottles of beer on stoops, children ride bikes and play on the sidewalks. Where teenage girls and boys hang together in groups, talking and laughing.
Willie blurts, “Should have never listened to you.” His eyes are small, strained. “You made the decision, I’m stuck with it. Forever.”
“No.” He stops on a corner. Willie does the same. He doesn’t care who’s around. “Let’s do this again. We’ve been through it ten times. Twenty even. You went to Westmoreland. You bought the parts. You drove me to the trooper station. You picked me up after it. You’re with me now. And we weren’t trying to hurt anyone.” The finger he’s pointing is an inch from Willie’s chin.
“Our intentions were different.”
They continue across the street.
He says, “Where we going to go? Robert knows something. Diane knows something. Neil knows. Everyone does. And we need to disappear like we’ve never been born.”
“They don’t know the details. Just that we’re not coming back.”
“They all know something’s up. They’ll find out eventually, through the rumor mill Robert’s connected to.”
“Maybe they won’t.”
“Can’t see anyone, ever. Not even Diane.”
“You gave it up to Robert.”
“Me, one glance at your face…”
“One at yours you mean. Look at it in the light. You kiss a moving bus?”
“If they’re looking, it’s for both of us,” he says.
“They’re not going to do that,” Willie says. “They don’t know.”
“They might. We can’t stay together. We need to split up even if they’re not.”
They enter Lincoln Park, a few blocks from the Ford. There’s one empty wood bench in a row of benches shaded by maple trees and that’s where they sit. They’re the only pale skins around not in an automobile, windows rolled up, a.c. blowing, squeaky honky-tonk beats filling the interior.
Two teams of shirtless boys with sweat-slick muscled arms and chests play basketball at the other end of the park. Onlookers lean against a chainlink fence or sit on benches, joining the loud, competitive commentary taking place on the asphalt.
“Camp together tonight, tomorrow we go our own way.”
Willie stares at the game and he wonders if he sees anything.
After a while, Willie says, “Know where I’m going, back to New Haven.”
“They’ll look for you there. The first place. Go home to mom. She still loves you even if no one else does.”
“Where you going?”
“Not back to Felton. No way. Staying clear of there. Way far away.”
“Might not even tell you so you won’t tell them after they nail your ass to the floor.”
“Let’s get in the car, get out of this place. We shouldn’t have come here. We have to think about it, what we’re going to do, where we’re going. Right now I don’t have any ideas. Not a single fucking one.”