Life in the fascist washing machine--
So many separate clothes,
Black and White--
is a Chlorox nightmare.
Nevertheless, there you are,
Belching suds and other purifying agents,
Trying to keep a cool head
On the way to the dryer.
Bill Kahl (1941-1981)
Letter from prison
1966--Howie Riley, former Boy Scout and Honor Society vice-president, enters the University, knowing who he is and what he wants. He soon discovers Viet Nam, dope, long hair, folk music and being weird. He falls in love and abandons his Career Plans. His parents are appalled, but there is a Revolution brewing.
1967--Howie becomes a "hippie." His life is complicated by a bizarre series of events involving narcs, LSD, a house full of crazy people, and the continuing Revolution. The latter begins to demand his attention.
1968--Howie drops out of school, loses his 2-S deferment, and is threatened with military induction. He considers the alternatives, and only his wits keep him out of the rice paddies of Viet Nam. He is not the only one.
1969--Howie has become "radicalized." His life is a series of meetings, protest demonstrations, plots, confrontations and more meetings. He becomes a Weatherman. He begins to notice people following him around.
1970--The country is in chaos, and so is Howie. There is talk of bombs and guns. Howie is purged from his own organization. The Revolution continues, but he escapes with his life. Others are not so fortunate.
It was the Fall of 1966, and there was a Revolution brewing. But Howard Keith Riley, Merit Scholar, ex-Boy Scout and Honor Society vice-president, former resident of Grand Ledge, Michigan, was entering the University.
His Certificate of Admission nestled snugly in his blazer pocket, credentials intact, pale body freshly scrubbed and anointed with Oil of Canoe, surrounded by all the Proper Nouns, Howie was ready to pass through the ritual of Registration. Years of training had prepared him for this moment, and he pressed on with few doubts, and only mild flashes of horniness brought about by close proximity to so many nubile female forms wrapped in plaid and polyester. The juices were flowing. It was great to be alive, to be eighteen, in perfect health, an American and a pre-law major. Christ! It was at that precise moment that he fell in love.
This was not a new experience. Howie Riley had been falling in love on an almost weekly basis since he was six years old and pulled his first ponytail. He did not remember ever hating girls. All the six-year-old boys he had ever known claimed to hate girls more than anything. Yuck! He suspected that he had been born without some vital immunity, an antibody to heterosexual attraction that was depleted in normal males only at the onset of puberty. Defenseless, he fell in love often, and never recovered. He remembered them all, even the ponytailed first grader.
His new love also had a ponytail. It hung down to her waist. She wore white levis, blue work shirt, no makeup. Her face was beautiful, even without lipstick or mascara, he thought. An intelligent face, with dark eyes and a playful smile. She was smiling at him.
He smiled back automatically. His smile then slowly faded as he saw that she was standing in front of a table, one of many set up at the entrance to the class registration hall. It was loaded with books and pamphlets, and hanging from the side was a sign: "STUDENTS FOR A DEMOCRATIC SOCIETY."
Howie had recently read an article in Life Magazine entitled, "The Explosive Rise of the New Left." There were pictures of bearded, long-haired, demonstrating students. Peppered throughout the piece were those three letters: SDS.
"Hi," said the girl. "You going to register?"
"Yeah," said Howie, staring at the sign.
For a moment, he considered lying. "Right," he said.
She waved vaguely at the table and the sign. "We're having a meeting tonight for new members."
"The SDS?" he asked.
"Right, but it's just SDS, not the SDS."
Flee! said a voice in his head. It's them!
The girl advanced on him as if on some kind of skittish animal, pamphlet held out in front of her like a dog biscuit. Howie could not flee; he was hypnotized by her smile.
"Why don't you read this," she said, holding out the brochure. "It's about the War in Viet Nam."
"Oh," he said, taking the pamphlet carefully.
"You know about the War?"
"Sure," he told her. He knew only what he had seen on TV: rice paddies and helicopters and body counts. It wasn't a war he envisioned himself fighting. He had a 2-S student deferment.
"We're planning a demonstration to protest the War and the University's involvement. That's what the meeting's about. You coming?"
Why did she think he would do that? Why was he talking to her at all? He stuffed the pamphlet in his pocket, next to his Certificate of Admission. "I don't know," he mumbled.
"Are you against the War?" she asked.
Howie looked at her blankly. What difference did it make? He shrugged.
"That's how I was at first," she said, laughing. "I didn't know shit. I thought Viet Nam was in South America!"
Howie laughed weakly. Where in the hell was Viet Nam?
"What's your name?" she asked.
"Howie," he said. Why did he do that? Now They had his name.
"Linda Goodman." She held out a hand and Howie took it. It was cool and bony. "Where you from?"
"Another scholarship sucker, right?"
"Sucker?" He was appalled. "Why do you say that?"
"Oh, I know," Linda said, rolling her eyes. "They're paying your tuition and everything, and they gave you the red carpet treatment at summer orientation and all that shit, right? Me, too. Then you get here and you find out you're just another student number, another body for the big machine. You know what? Half the people in SDS are on scholarships. We're all suckers, so don't feel bad."
He didn't feel bad. He felt weird. He was standing there in front of half the University community, talking to a communist, for God's sake, who didn't wear makeup, said "shit" all the time and wanted him to come to an SDS meeting!
And, to make matters worse, he was in love with her.
"Shit," he said. (It was contagious.) "I gotta go register." He started walking away, somehow making his legs move by sheer willpower. Then he turned back. "Uh, nice talking to you," he said, and that was his biggest mistake.
She nailed him again with her smile. "You coming to the meeting?"
He looked deep into her big brown eyes. "I'll think about it." That was for sure.
"It's in the Student Center, Room 230."
"They let you use the Student Center?" he asked, incredulous.
"Sure, why not?"
"Yeah, why not?" He stumbled away.
"Don't be a sucker!" she called out.
People were looking at him. One kid, built like a football player, muttered something about "commies."
"I never saw her before in my life," Howie told the jock, and instantly felt guilty.
He tried to recapture his earlier feeling of breathless anticipation, but Registration was ruined for him. The Class Card Arena--hundreds of desks labelled "English" and "Chemistry" and "Romance Languages"--was a giant supermarket, where knowledge was being huckstered to legions of suckers. Not a metaphor he would have chosen earlier that morning.
He found himself eyeing his fellow students surreptitiously, wondering which ones were the SDS members on scholarships. He saw more white levis and blue work shirts. How many were there? Or was it just a big commie lie, told by Linda Goodman in order to get him to come to the meeting, where they would brainwash him into mindlessly following the Party line?
Of course! He snapped out of it just in time. He would steer clear of those people, put his nose to the grindstone, his shoulder to the wheel, graduate with honors and become a Supreme Court Justice, or at least a Justice of the Peace. No time for SDS meetings. Not this sucker.
As soon as he entered Room 230 of the Student Center, Howie began looking for Linda Goodman.
She was nowhere to be found, so he took a seat in the rear and surveyed the crowd, his pulse pounding with fear or excitement or both. It was the strangest-looking collection of individuals he had ever laid eyes upon. White levis, boots, blue work shirts and denim jackets seemed to be the uniform of the day, and he realized in horror that he was the only person in the room wearing a coat and tie.
Most of the men had long hair, mustaches, even beards. Buttons were everywhere: "Stop the War," "SNCC," "SDS," and "SRO," whatever that last one was. They all seemed to be trying to out-smoke each other. Through the haze he could see lots of argumentation and gesticulating, none of which made any sense to him. He decided he'd made a big mistake, and started to make his escape.
It was Linda Goodman. Howie sat down heavily. "Hi," he said.
"I'm so glad you came! But don't sit back there. Come up in front and meet some people."
She grabbed him and dragged him toward the front of the room, where he was introduced to a trio of scruffy-looking characters who were in charge of on-campus recruiting for the Student Rights Organization. They were all wearing "SRO" buttons. There was an extremely fat girl named Melanie, who wore a voluminous paisley cape and at least five pounds of turquoise jewelry. Hector was skinny and sullen, surrounded by a haze of cigarette smoke. And John, who Howie thought was one of the more normal-looking people in the room, was a graduate teaching assistant who the University was trying to get rid of because of his political activity.
"I'm a dangerous radical," he said, grinning.
"He's a Trot," Hector said cryptically.
"A what?" asked Howie.
"A Trotskyite," said Hector.
"Trotskyist," corrected John. "Young Socialist Alliance."
"Sure," said Howie, completely mystified.
"I mean, c'mon, Hector," John complained, "how'd you like to be called a socialite?"
"Listen, guys," Linda said, "Howie's sorta new to all this. I think you're confusing him." Howie looked at her with love in his eyes.
Linda patted a chair. "Why don't you sit down? I've gotta go do some things, but I'll be back." She headed toward the front of the room, and disappeared in the cigarette fog. Howie sat down.
"You a freshman, honey?" asked Melanie, her jewelry jangling.
"Well, don't worry. You'll have your head on straight in no time!"
"I thought it already was."
Melanie laughed. "Got it all figured out, huh?"
"Well, I was doing fine until I met Linda today." He looked around the room. "What are all these people doing here, anyway?"
Melanie sighed. "Where do I start? Look, this university treats us like children. They tell us where to live, how to think, how to dress. The women are separated from the men, and they lock the women up every night. If we want to print any literature and pass it out, we have to get permission. If we want to form an organization, we have to get a faculty advisor and be 'recognized.' If you break any rules, they can kick you out just like that." She snapped her fingers.
"Well, you've gotta have rules," Howie said weakly.
"Due Process," said Hector.
"There's no such thing as due process for students here. In the real world, if you break a law, you get a trial, with a jury of your peers, and a lawyer to defend you. What we've got here is a dictatorship."
"In loco parentis," said Melanie.
"Right," said Hector. "It means the University takes the place of your parents. You're not a citizen. You've got no rights. You've got to take whatever kinda crap they wanta dish out."
"It runs counter to the whole idea of a university," John chimed in. "We're supposed to be here to learn. That learning process takes place best in an atmosphere of free and open discussion. But we don't have that, because learning isn't what's going on here."
"What is going on here?" Howie wanted to know.
"Indoctrination," they all said at once.
"They're trying to force feed us with the establishment line," said John. "If you happen to disagree with that line--zip." He drew his finger across his throat.
"John is a perfect example," said Melanie.
"Uh, what'd you do?" Howie asked tentatively.
John looked grim. "It's a long story. Basically what I did was to pass out copies of our newsletter in the dorms."
"Treason!" shouted Hector.
John continued. "They call the dorms 'living-learning complexes,' but what they are is concentration camps. All the little kiddies from the sticks are forced to live there for the first couple of years, and they're protected from all the outside influences that might warp their sensitive little minds."
"That's us," Hector stated proudly. He drew close to Howie and whispered in his ear. "At this very moment you are surrounded by the scum of the earth. This is a den of communists and dope fiends and degenerates and homosexuals!"
Despite himself, Howie was impressed. He looked around the room, willing to believe everything Hector said. But Melanie laughed.
"Don't pay any attention to him! He's been paranoid ever since he came back from the South."
"What were you doing there?" Howie wanted to know.
"Oh, the usual. Getting shot at, beaten, arrested, run out of town."
"Voter registration," John explained. "For Negroes."
Negroes, Howie thought. This was really getting interesting. He noticed for the first time that there were several of them in the room. He had never really known any colored people. There was a family in his home town, but he hadn't paid any attention to them. They were just there, like the river or the post office; they had never caused any trouble, as far as he knew.
"Look," said Melanie gently, "if I were you I'd keep my ears open and my mouth shut. Listen to what people are saying--except Hector, of course! If you've got any brains, you'll join us."
Howie wasn't so sure about that. All this talk about dictatorships and indoctrination and concentration camps and degenerates was exciting, but scary, too. He had the strangest feeling that his life, such as it was, had taken a very odd turn. He sat back to listen.
The first time Howie Riley saw the freak wearing the white shirt, he knew something was wrong.
Vague tremors in the air, perhaps--leftover transcendent insights from somebody's last acid trip--or possibly the clean, white shirt, the brand new boots and the three-day-old beard were what did it. On the other hand, it could have been the fact that the dude knocked on the door, for chrissake, and nobody ever knocked on the door at 429 Fern Street. It just wasn't done. It wasn't even necessary. It was like knocking on the door of a restaurant or something.
In any case, the guy knocked on the door, and when Howie opened it he said his name was "Joe" and that he wanted to buy some "el ess dee."
"You wanta buy some LSD," Howie observed tentatively, using the Rogerian approach.
"That's right, man," Joe said lethargically, yawning and scratching his ass. "Some guys said you might be able to get some for me."
Joe smiled conspiratorially. "They told me not to mention their names, ya know? They just said this was where it was at."
Howie knew all about narcs. They wore white shirts and knocked on doors asking to buy LSD. They had three-day-old beards and tried to act hip. Above all, they had to be dealt with cautiously.
"You're a narc," Howie said.
"No, I'm not."
"Yes, you are."
"Do I look like a cop?" Joe asked forlornly.
"Yes. No. Wait a minute." Howie left Joe the Narc standing in the doorway and went into the kitchen, where he found George Ackermann, surrounded by scummy dishes, stale bread crusts, barely empty yogurt containers, brownish banana peels, empty milk cartons and rice-encrusted plastic bowls, carefully constructing a crunchy peanut butter and blackberry jelly sandwich.
"Hey, George," Howie whispered. "There's a narc out there who wants to buy some LSD!"
"So do I," said George absently, peering at his sandwich.
"Did you hear what I said?" Howie asked, sensing an approaching reality contact problem.
"No," George answered. "What'd you say?"
"I said there's a narc out there who wants to buy some acid!"
George looked up slowly from his sandwich. "Don't sell him anything, Howie."
"Thanks, George. I won't."
"Really, man. Is he wearing a uniform?"
"Of course not!"
"Then how," George asked, in a rare moment of mental clarity, "do you know he's a cop?"
"Because he knocked on the goddamn door! And he's wearing... oh, go look at him yourself!"
George sighed, rose from his stool, and went out to peek at Joe the Narc. He stood looking at him for thirty seconds, then wobbled back into the kitchen and continued with his sandwich. "Remarkable deduction, Mr. Holmes," he said finally. "I do believe you're right."
"You bet your sweet ass I'm right!"
George put the finishing touches on his culinary masterpiece, looked at it proudly for a moment, then asked, "What do you suggest we do?"
"How the hell should I know? I don't even live here."
"Neither do I," said George.
"You're more of a permanent resident than I am," Howie argued desperately. "You do crash here an awful lot."
"You're bumming me out, do you know that?" George stated.
Throwing caution to the winds, Howie and George then strode more-or-less boldly into the living room to confront Joe the Narc, who was standing in the middle of the room, squinting at a psychedelic poster.
"Hey, uh, we haven't got anything," Howie said, trying to sound tough.
"Oh," said Joe the Narc, skeptically, it seemed to Howie. "When you gonna get some?"
"I don't know," said Howie.
"Are you a narc?" inquired George politely.
"No," said Joe the Narc.
George, having finished his peanut butter and jelly sandwich in four gulps, laid down on the floor, put on a pair of stereo headphones, and fell asleep listening to the Mothers of Invention.
George Ackermann's friends agreed that he was lucky to be walking around loose. He was twenty-four years old, and his sole purpose in life was to be stoned. He had no visible means of support, and nobody knew where he lived. It was variously suggested that he had a free share of a room in a dormitory, a luxury apartment on the edge of town, and a cold water flat in a flophouse. The fact that there were no known flophouses anywhere nearby did nothing to discourage the rumor; if George Ackermann could exist, he could certainly find a flop house to do it in. Most of the time he slept on the living room floor at 429 Fern Street, wearing stereo headphones connected to a phonograph playing at full volume.
The house on Fern Street was three stories tall and had a living room, a dining room, a kitchen, two bathrooms, eight bedrooms, and a horrible reputation. Vague and paradoxical rumors, as well as outright untruths, were fostered and fueled by mass media hysteria, according to which the people at 429 Fern Street were all communists and lived their lives in preposterous depravity, making molotov cocktails, drinking wine, having orgies, shooting porno movies, and mainlining narcotics.
Carloads of hostile, short-haired zombies often drove by, whispering obscenely, pressing their noses against tightly-closed power windows, hoping for a glimpse of rumored sin.
The only individual who knew for certain how many freaks lived at 429 Fern Street was Stanley Harris, alias The Troll, mostly unseen master of the household. His name was the only one on the lease, due to a ghastly mistake on the part of the landlord. Anybody who wanted to live there had to present himself to The Troll for an in-depth interview, which nobody ever wanted to talk about afterward. His interviews were somewhat unorthodox, it was said, involving a great deal of staring and mumbling, a couple of magic tricks, some unsettlingly accurate stabs at mind-reading, and an occasional bit of indecent exposure.
The Troll's physical appearance was astonishing, even at Fern Street, most of whose denizens looked like extras who'd wandered away from the set of "The Mole People Meet The Living Dead." He was seven feet tall and weighed 110 pounds, giving him the look of a Watusi in the final stages of starvation. His beard reached to his waist. During his brief public appearances he wore a long, white robe and a baseball cap, or for more formal occasions, a t-shirt, an old corduroy sport coat, and a pair of white levis with a large hole in the crotch.
The Troll made his living renting rooms and giving informal lectures on Eastern meditation techniques, which were a great deal like his interviews. He was an unlikely concierge, as well as an unlikely human being, a solitary straggler from a very freaky carnival which had long ago left town.
Joe the Narc didn't leave after being informed of the imaginary LSD shortage. He just stood in the middle of the living room, picking his nose and smiling maniacally at Howie. Finally he sat down on the dilapidated couch and began leafing through the latest issue of The Weakly Freak, the local underground newspaper. Howie left him sitting there and climbed the stairs to knock on the door of Robert Gold's room.
"Who the hell is it?" came a voice.
"Howie. Open up, hey."
The door was unlocked. Gold and Kristi Tucker were in the room, fumbling with what Kristi had been told was an ounce of marijuana.
"This is some really shitty-looking dope," said Gold, peering into the thin envelope. He looked at Kristi. "Did you really pay twenty dollars for this?"
"Well, I didn't know," Kristi whined. "I mean, I thought it was good." Kristi's parents had not considered the possibility that knowing the difference between good marijuana and bad would be a necessary part of a Bloomfield Hills girl's upbringing. It was all bad to them, although if the truth were known, they weren't even sure what it looked like. Neither, obviously, was Kristi.
"You're really lucky you've got bread to waste like this," said Gold. He had recently been disowned, pronounced dead by his very poor and very devout (though not Orthodox) Jewish parents after he had returned from college with a shiksa, an incredible had of hair, equally incredible political opinions, and a habit of speaking freely in the presence of old and constipated family friends.
Gold was Fern Street's resident intellectual, with an IQ in the 190s. Between them, Gold and Kristi had an IQ which was easily over 200.
"Hey, you guys," Howie announced, "do you know there's a narc downstairs?"
"What's he want?" asked Gold, looking at Howie curiously.
"He wants to buy some LSD."
"So do I," said Gold. He lit the joint he had rolled from Kristi's pitiful stash, dragged on it deeply, and handed it to Howie, who looked at it doubtfully, then shrugged and took a toke.
Kristi looked confused. "Is there really a narc downstairs?" she asked, peering out the window.
"He claims he isn't," Howie told her. "But he knocked on the door, and he's wearing a white shirt. George thinks he's a narc, too."
"Well, then, it's a certainty," said Gold, and the three of them went downstairs to look at Joe the Narc.
"So where is he?" Gold asked, looking around the living room. He handed the joint to Joe the Narc.
"It's him, you moron," exclaimed Howie.
"What's me?" asked Joe the Narc, accepting the joint gratefully and taking several small tokes.
"The narc," said Howie, in disgust.
Kristi snatched the joint away from Joe the Narc and tried to hide it.
"Hey, bummer," said Joe the Narc.
"Sorry," said Howie.
"No, you're not," said Joe the Narc, and walked out the door.
"He'll be back," said Howie.
Gold shook his head. "Nah. He knows we're onto him."
Joe the Narc came back the next night, much to Howie's dismay, and continued to hang around, asking everybody he met if they would sell him some acid. Howie had warned everyone beforehand, so they just shook their heads and asked him if he was really a narc. He usually looked hurt and said that he wasn't. Sometimes he would piss and moan and try to start a fight. Once in a while he would laugh weakly and say, "Sure, I'm a narc, but narcs like to get high just like everybody else!"
Nobody believed him, of course--especially Howie, who insisted that somebody ought to do something.
"He's still down there," said Howie one night, as they all sat in Gold's room smoking dope.
"So what else is new?" asked Gold.
"But aren't we gonna do something about it?"
"He's been here for two weeks," said George.
"What difference does that make?" Howie demanded.
"Howie," George explained calmly, "if there was something to be done, we'd have done it by now."
"But can't we just kick him out?"
George was horrified. "We can't do that!"
"Because he's a cop," said George. "You can't just go ordering cops around!"
"He actually asked me out the other night," revealed Kristi, wrinkling her nose in disgust. "I wouldn't go out with him even if he wasn't a cop."
"How do you know that?" Howie asked, trying to be fair. "All you really know about him is that he's a cop."
"Isn't that enough?" she demanded.
George was sitting on the floor, smiling his Lyndon Johnson smile, rocking back and forth, looking like something that had just popped out of a dark corner in the fun house. "Far out," he said.
It was only then that Howie felt the weight of responsibility descending upon his shoulders; if something was to be done, he was the only one to do it.
The blue-clad android hordes were on the march. Howie Riley spied them coming down the dark street, skirmish lines drawn, riot clubs at port arms, big boots sloshing through the snow, plexiglass face masks ominously opaque. He stood his ground. Timing was everything. But they would break into a run moments before they were ordered to do so; he would be caught if he didn't move soon.
The neon sign in the window of the Steak Pit Bar beckoned. Would it serve as sanctuary? Or had they recognized him? No, they were freshly recruited mercenaries from the outlying provinces, wouldn't recognize a notorious radical unless they had been very carefully briefed. He grinned his fear away, looked around. He was not alone; there were others facing the oncoming porcine platoons. But they were beginning to scatter, not yet ready for the spilling of blood, the ritual purification of hopeless combat, the club in the kidneys. Not cowards; realists, unable to shed the civilizing influence of twenty years of constipational education.
Howie shrugged, began shuffling away, watching the cops out of the corner of his eye. He fingered the lead pipe in his coat pocket. Pulsing with brute power, it longed to kiss plate glass, but now was not the time. Howie reached the Steak Pit as the troops began to pick up speed. By the time he was inside and had turned to the window, they were streaming by at a half-trot, grunting under heavy fatigues, riot helmets, Sam Browne belts, insulated underwear.
Temporarily safe--though he knew he would probably venture forth once again into the holocaust--he looked around. The bar was packed, most of its patrons straining for a look out the window, their beer glass held protectively in front of their well-fed bellies, eyes wide, mouths open.
"Jesus Christ, didja see those guys?"
"Every cop in the state's out there!"
"They won't come in here, will they?"
They'll go anywhere they feel like, Howie thought; look at Viet Nam. He turned away from the window, spied Leon Gaffney sitting alone at a table in the rear, fought his way through the crowd to join him.
Leon glanced up, grunted, looked back at his beer. "We screwed up, you know that, don't you?" he growled.
"Yeah," Howie acknowledged.
"We shoulda been ready. We shoulda known this was going to happen. They had to overreact sooner or later."
"Uh-huh." Howie grabbed a shell-shocked waitress, ordered a draft.
"Instead, we're sitting here in this fucking bar without any plans, our people scattered all over the goddamn city . . ."
"We're supposed to be leadership."
Leon had always considered himself leadership. Captain of his Little League team, high school student council vice-president, Boy Scout patrol leader. He didn't care about power; he only wanted things to run smoothly--baseball games, meetings, riots, it didn't matter. To Leon, everything had an internal dynamic which required planning and direction to be realized. After the riot he would count the broken windows, the arrests, the injuries, figure out the averages, the stats.
"Well," Howie said thoughtfully, "it's still going on. We could grab a few crazies, whip something together."
"It's too late," Leon grumbled.
"C'mon, get off your ass." Howie jumped to his feet, started toward the door. A moment's hesitation and Leon followed, still grumbling.
"But what the hell are we gonna do?"
"How the hell should I know? Break a window, chant something snappy. You ever hear of spontaneity?"
Leon didn't like spontaneity, but he came along. They peered out the front window, saw the cops were nowhere in sight, exited cautiously, sniffing the air for tear gas. They heard the sounds of not-too-distant battle and headed in that direction. Rounding the corner, they were confronted by a curious tableau.
The police were drawn up in a column of twos, marching down the middle of the main drag. Traffic had been blocked off and re-routed at either end of the business district. The street having been cleared of cars and crowds, the police were now seeking to cordon off the campus section, drive the mob back to its lair. The mob was dimly visible across the street, percolating with disparate chants and cries.
"We seem to be caught behind enemy lines," Howie whispered. They huddled in a darkened doorway, surveying the situation.
"Looks like it's all over," Leon observed sadly.
"Let's wait and see."
They waited, while the solid line of blue was drawn inexorably along the boulevard. The crowd began chanting: "Pigs off campus! Pigs off campus!"
"What would happen," Howie suddenly wondered, "if a bunch of people showed up on this side of the street and started trashing windows? Would they all come back over here? Leave the border undefended? Battle of the Bulge time?"
"Yeah," Leon muttered, with even less than his usual level of enthusiasm. "And we'd get killed. Anyway, everybody's over there."
"Not everybody," Howie observed. "We're here."
Leon was disgusted. "Butch Asshole and the Sundance Yid. Even you aren't that crazy."
"There must be more of us. Let's look around."
Howie and Leon left their doorway and went skulking off in a search for reinforcements. There were bound to be some stragglers from the last action of the night.
It had begun as a peaceful march, a mass show of solidarity with the Chicago Seven and Bobby Seale. Six hundred shivering malcontents stood in front of city hall while speeches were given, chants chanted, a Viet Cong flag run up the flagpole, the usual. The atmosphere of struggle had begun to dissipate in the February chill, the curious were turning away, even the committed were beginning to weigh frostbite against the needs of the Movement, when an unidentified maniac in Army fatigues calmly walked up to the plate glass window next to the front door and reduced it to shards with a heavy-duty tire chain. Almost instantly the overhead door of the attached fire station began to rise, revealing several platoons of riot police in full battle gear. One look was all it took; the crowd was off on a rampage, having seen the ugly face of the enemy, their spirits lifted by a reaffirmation of the idea that they, too, by God, were oppressed!
Howie and Leon found three members of the Young Socialist League trying to open a fire hydrant at the corner of First and Connecticut. Two more kindred spirits were discovered passing a joint in the lobby of a student apartment building a block away. Within ten minutes they had amassed an army of twelve who seemed willing to follow the leadership of the moment.
Howie explained his plan. "This is going to be a hit and run thing, like the VC. We've gotta get them to spread their forces so thin they can't contain the crowd over on campus."
"How do we do that?" asked one of the Young Socialists, alway
s concerned with form and political content. "Float like a butterfly," said Leon, getting into the spirit of things, unwilling to appear more conservative than a Trot, for God's sake.
"Sting like a bee," said Howie, brandishing his lead pipe.
"We break a few windows," added Leon, sensing a lack of communication.
The troops now nodded grimly, and the army marched off down the street, alert for movement in the shadows. When the reached the main street, they found the cops and the students still facing each other. A new chant was heard: "Ho-Ho-Ho Chi Minh, the N-L-F is gonna win!"
"Far out," said Leon.
"Let's hit the bank," Howie suggested, pointing toward the hallowed First National, three doors away. There was some immediate dissent, the ensuing discussion resulting in twenty-five percent casualties, leaving only nine to descend upon the bank building. They began pounding on the windows. But the glass --hardened by some arcane process developed in the laboratories of corporate capitalism--refused to break, even under furious assault from Howie's lead pipe. Finally the two dopers picked up a steel trash basket and--using it as a battering ram--crashed through the window, accompanied by cheers and the raucous clanging of the alarm bell.
Across the street a section of the encircling forces took note of this sacrilege. But lacking direction from a command officer, they hesitated, glancing back uncertainly at the campus mob, which began cheering deliriously.
A sergeant ran up and began screaming at his men. "Go, go go!" he shouted, picking three troopers and physically propelling them halfway across the street toward the bank. The crowd, seeing a small break in the cordon, reacted faster than the sergeant, surging forward and pouring into the street.
"Yeah!" shouted Howie. He began running past the row of stores, followed by those members of his commando group who hadn't already beat a hasty retreat. Hot on their heels came the three cops, followed closely by a hundred or so protesters who had leaked through the police lines.
This parade continued up the street, Howie in the lead. Suddenly there materialized out of the shadows one Norman Stafford, Chairman of the Organization of Student-Worker Solidarity.
"Drop that pipe, Riley!" he shouted.
"Fuck off, man, there's a riot going on!"
Stafford grabbed Howie's arm and tried to spin him around. "Put it down, I'm warning you!" Insane with internecine hatred, almost foaming at the mouth.
Howie couldn't believe what was happening to him. The OSWS, convinced that the next American Revolution would come by stimulation of strikes at the fabled "point of production," did its best to ensure that, at the very least, the Revolution could never come any other way. They hated Howie's group almost as much as they hated the Establishment. But this was ridiculous, even for Stafford.
Howie kept running, dragging the manic Marxist along behind him. "Let go of me, you raving tunafish!" he cried. "You're gonna get us both arrested!"
"You oughta be arrested, Riley! You and your drug-crazed rock and rollers have ruined everything! This is the worst thing that could happen!"
This was no Marxist, thought Howie, but an escapee from a lunatic asylum. "It's the best thing that could happen," Howie gasped, trying to free his arm from Stafford's grip. "Action, man! Movement! People getting up off their dead asses and fighting back." Howie could hardly talk anymore, his lungs bursting, his legs aching from the exertion of pulling Stafford down the street. The cops were still after him, he saw, looking only slightly less crazed than his companion.
"Don't break any more windows!" Stafford wailed.
"Get away from me, you idiot!"
"You'll alienate the workers!"
That did it, Howie thought. No more screwing around. He turned and saw that the cops were momentarily halted, regrouping, no doubt almost as exhausted as Howie, and realizing that they were in danger of being surrounded.
Howie took the opportunity to confront Stafford, waving his pipe in the air, summoning up unsuspected reserves of energy and rage. "Listen to me, Stafford. If you don't let go of me and get the hell outa here, I swear I'll smash your goddamn teeth in!"
Stafford's face turned pale, he wavered a moment, let go of Howie's arm. "You bastard!" he whined.
"That's better." Howie started walking quickly away as the cops began to move in his direction once again. He ducked into an alley to his left, then peered out just in time to see Norman Stafford still standing on the sidewalk, shaking his head. Then Stafford looked up saw the cops six yards away, bearing down on him with murder in their eyes, one lefty as good as another to them. Stafford began to run, shouting back at them, "Wait a minute, wait a minute, I'm on your side!"
That was for sure, thought Howie, as he sprinted down the alley. Momentarily alone, he peeked out the other end and saw nothing dangerous. He turned to the right, hoping to link up with the main body of students. He had gone two blocks without incident when his eyes began to water.
"Tear gas," he said aloud. "Shit's hit the fan somewhere!"
He resisted the natural gas-inspired impulse to run the other way, instead headed toward the main street, buttoning his coat up over his nose. In the distance he could see a cloud of gas, and a gang of students milling around in panic, trying to find an escape route. Here and there a blue helmet bobbed above the crowd, and riot sticks were rising and falling like rogue pistons in some Kafkaesque machine. In the exact center of it all, desperately trying to free himself from an arm lock administered by a very large State Trooper, was Leon Gaffney.
Howie blinked once, shook his head and galloped off to the rescue.
It was the Spring of 1970, and there was a Revolution going on. But Howie Riley had just returned from a solitary three-day motorcycle camping expedition. and his brain was flushed and fumigated, the ongoing social upheaval temporarily consigned to a far corner of his mind. He was uncharacteristically at peace. His nostrils were permeated with the scent of smoldering firewood; he could hear the sparrows whistling in the trees above his campsite.
It was in this tranquil frame of mind that he arrived at his apartment to find a single letter waiting patiently in his mailbox. The Chicago postmark was a clear warning that his sublime state of political noninvolvement was to be challenged. The letter thus remained unopened while he unpacked his knapsack and consumed one large joint and a half glass of warm Coke.
Finally assured that nothing could spoil his contentment and good cheer, he tore open the letter and read:
The sense of urgency becomes more difficult to ignore.
Remembering our long conversation this summer about What To Do Next, I'm writing to tell you that I've made a decision. Am I being too cryptic? I hope not, but you never can tell who's reading your mail these days. Call me on the People's Telephone. I miss everybody there, but I'm excited about the growing militancy. Hope you've been heading in the same direction. Power to the People.
Love and struggle,
Too cryptic? No, not really, Howie thought. Perhaps too graphic, it was quite clear what she was talking about, beautiful Annie the Anarchist. She was talking about bombs.
"Armed struggle," they called it, among the ranks of Weatherman. Howie thought about Annie, who had once placed a flower in an MP's gun barrel at The Pentagon, and who always argued for a strict code of nonviolence. Even she had taken that one last step. Around the corner? Over the edge?
Howie shook his head, drummed on the seat of his chair, exhaled slowly, then folded the letter and put it in his hip pocket. "Later," he said aloud, then jumped up and banged out the door and down the stairs to his motorcycle. The machine waited silently, its single headlight staring dubiously sideways at five feet, eleven inches of hairy freak about to choogle off to who knows what highway hallucination.
I'm messed up, he thought. Oughta all a taxi. He started the bike, sat and listened to the warmhearted growl. Four hundred fifty cc's stretched voluptuously underneath him; he could feel the muscles through the seat.
To be sure. But then the road was rolling away beneath him. Into fourth at fifty, nice night for a bike ride. Howie grinned into the distance, feeling truly crazed: Mysterious letters from female mad bombers, armed war with the State. When had this begun to make sense? He tried the feeling on for size, decided he liked it. He remembered the Hardy Boys, The Mystery of The Dying Headwaiter's Hangnail, trapped on a derelict ore freighter with a group of lycanthropic smugglers, hanging by a pair of knotted shoelaces from the crumbling bell tower of an abandoned church, while the demented former mayor of Fergus Falls, Minnesota plotted evil deeds in the rectory. He had read every book in the series, spent unnumbered hours curled up on the top bunk with a Three Musketeers in one hand and a book in the other.
But this was not a mystery novel; this was reality. People whose opinions he listened to were telling him that it was literally time to pick up the gun, go underground, begin fighting on the side of the Viet Cong.
Howie shivered, opened the throttle wider, hitting fifth gear, letting his mind flow into the speed and the noise and the wind. Finally he throttled down, turned a corner in third, and bumped up onto the lawn of 103 Albert Street.
He shut the engine off, his dope-fogged brain shocked by the sudden silence. Too silent, he thought. Something was wrong. He left his helmet on, proceeding with caution, not knowing what skull-crackers lurked in the bushes, nightsticks raised to strike.
There! What was that?
But it was only Leon. "Get the hell in here, man! The pigs have been by looking for Carolyn!" He was eyeing both ends of the street at the same time, obviously distraught. Was that a shotgun barrel in the window?
"They didn't find her?" asked Howie, heading for the porch.
"No, but they keep driving by, looking at the house. . . . Here they come again!" he shouted.
They dove through the doorway, scrambling for cover. Howie peeked through the front window, saw a late model Ford cruising by, two men in the front seat, dark suits, white shirts. Gestapo!
"Those the guys?" came a voice from the darkness. The shades were drawn, the lights were off, everybody was on the floor. Jane Winston had the Remington twelve-gauge in her arms, safety off.
"Yeah," said Leon. "Maybe they're lost."
"What do they want with Carolyn?" Howie asked.
"Inciting to riot," came the choral response, and Leon filled in the details.
"While you were out communing with nature or whatever the hell you were doing," he told Howie, "we had a little action."
"We burned down the goddamn ROT-CEE building!" Ape-Man announced gleefully.
"You can read about it in the papers," said Leon. "Anyway, Carolyn gave a really right-on speech, so naturally . . ."
"They figured she started it," Howie finished. "So where is she?"
"Underground," said Jane.
The company fell silent at the mention of this almost religious concept. Carolyn the Commie was underground, a fugitive of the empire. Recently bailed out on an assault charge, and under investigation for other real or imagined deeds, she had no choice but to bail out.
Howie found himself wondering where they all went when they disappeared. He pictured a long, dark tunnel, originating in Cleveland, perhaps, the other end bringing the lucky fugitive up and out into Munchkinland, or better. Perhaps a manhole in front of the Havana Libre hotel. Would Carolyn soon be cutting cane, learning Spanish and mingling with the revolutionary people of Cuba? Would she ever be able to come back?
Unfortunately, there was no time for idle musing; the house was apparently under siege. Howie surveyed the room. There were only three others besides himself--perhaps a few more in the other rooms--and one lone shotgun and a few heavy metal and wood objects with which to waged armed struggle. He was Davy Crockett, making it to the Alamo just in time to be gunned down in a futile gesture of resistance.
He was also, he remembered, very stoned. Did the Viet Cong really fight in that condition? Did he want to fight at all? To the death, like Fred Hampton and Bobby Seale? Or would token resistance and quiet surrender be politically correct under the circumstances? Of course, he knew that it was not a decision that he along would make, and he was both relieved and appalled by that.
But Howie's fears proved unnecessary, since the enemy did not reappear. After another half hour's vigil, they decided it was safe to get up off the floor and turn on the lights. David was recalled from his post at the back door, while Howie went to find Michelle.
She was in the back bedroom, dutifully staring out the window, alert for a flanking attack.
"All clear, sister," he said.
She jumped at the sound of his voice, then turned and stared at him, finally managing a weak smile. "That's a relief." She stood up and walked over to him. "Where the hell did you come from, anyway?"
"I got a little lonely out in the woods," he said. "That was a hell of a greeting."
He reached out to hug her, but she backed away. "It wasn't exactly done for your benefit."
"Hey, what's the matter?"
"Nothing," she said flatly. "I'm just nervous. The last few days have been pretty heavy. You should've been here."
"I'm sorry. You know I had to get away for a while."
"We'd all like to get away," she said, almost angrily. "But we can't. Things are happening. It's important to be totally committed."
"Yeah, sure," he mumbled. They looked at each other for a moment, they Howie said, "Let's go in the other room."
Out in the living room the post-incident analysis was already underway. "I don't think they've got enough evidence to move yet," David was saying. "They wouldn't have gone away if they did."
"Maybe they didn't go away," Howie said. "And since when have they needed evidence to bust anybody?"
"We thought we were gonna have to duke it out there for a minute," said Jane. "Besides the two that came to the door, there were three in a car across the street, and two more who drove by."
"They really wanted in," added Ape-Man. "Gave us a lotta shit. They thought maybe Carolyn was here, hiding in the attic with a couple hand grenades."
"My head is still back in the woods," said Howie. "I'm not sure I'm ready for this just yet."
"The world struggle for liberation goes on it spite of you," Jane pointed out, only half-joking.
"Are you wrecked or what?" Ape-Man wanted to know.
"Or what," said Howie.
"Got any more," Leon asked.
"Not on me. How about you guys?"
Heads were shaken, but a bottle of cold Boone's Farm Apple Wine was produced. Howie took a long drink, closing his eyes and feeling the bubbles in his tummy, wondering why this wasn't illegal, too.
"I think we should talk about this," David announced suddenly.
"About what?" Howie asked.
"About being stoned," David answered, his face expressionless. "I don't think the movement can afford it any more. Things are getting too heavy for any of us not to be totally in control."
There was a moment of silence. Howie looked around the room, but saw only poker faces. "Is this a criticism session?" he asked quietly.
"Why not?" David said. "I think everybody realizes that your attitude has been pretty non-struggle lately."
"Non-struggle!" Howie exclaimed. "What the hell are you talking about?"
"It's pretty obvious," David answered. "You disappear into the woods just when we're having a major action, then you come back stoned and tell us you're not ready to fight the pigs."
Howie shook his head. "We're not ready to fight," he said, trying to keep the anger out of his voice. "Those were cops out there. They had guns, and they'd love to off every one of us. We're not exactly the Red Army, you know."
"We are the Red Army!" Michelle exploded. "We're fighting behind enemy lines! You'd better get that through your thick bourgeois skull!"
"Jesus, Michelle," Howie said softly, stunned by her outburst.
But there was no stopping her. "You've been telling me for a long time how I've got to learn to fight back and stop being so timid. Well, I'm ready to fight, and I've finally figured out that one of the people I've got to fight back against is you!"
Howie was flabbergasted. "What the fuck is going on here?" he said slowly. "Leon? Are you gonna tell me?"
Leon was embarrassed. "I don't think it's up to me," he said, not looking at Howie.
Howie turned to Michelle. She reached out and took David's hand. David said, "I, uh, hoped we could deal with this in some other way, Howie."
Suddenly it all became clear. "You're sleeping together!" Howie exclaimed. "Holy shit!"
"Now, don't get excited," David said.
"Excited!" Howie cried. "You lay some heavy criticism on me, and Michelle starts screaming about the Red Army, and now I find out it's really all about this! Gimme a break!"
"Monogamy is counter-revolutionary," Jane stated.
"Oh, thanks, Winston," Howie said, jumping to his feet. "You can all just go screw yourselves!"
He slammed out the door, jumped on his motorcycle and roared off. When he turned the corner, a late model Ford pulled away from the curb and followed him down the street.
(Copyright 2011 by Brad Lang)
Interested publishers or other parties, please contact Brad Lang.