Mary Sojourner has written the novel Sisters of the Dream; short story collection, Delicate; essays Bonelight: Ruin and Grace in the New Southwest; memoir/essays Solace: Rituals of Loss and Desire. She is writing a book on women and compulsive gambling for Seal Press and is co-writing with a man who has befriended a wounded eagle. Her short stories and essays are in High Country News, Mountain Gazette, and many literary magazines. She is an NPR commentator and teaches writing throughout the West. She began her serious writing in 1985 at 45, after she raised her three kids as a divorced mom.
If the desk clerk decides you're okay, the window of your room in the Royale Hotel looks out over the blue-gray sheen of Lake Michigan. To get to the view, you ride in an ancient elevator that forces you to live one second at a time. When its door opens, you can see down the silent hall. An old man peers out of his room, a young woman out of hers, and a person whose age and sex are impossible to guess, stands directly in front of the open elevator door and does not enter. The old man wears yellowed long johns open to the navel. The woman is wrapped head to toe in iridescent scarves. The person in front of you raises a hand and peeks at you through long, perfectly manicured fingers.
Carrie peeked back. She felt charmed and immune. She had traveled across the country alone by train, in easy silence except for the sweet rhythm of wheels on tracks. There was to be a benefit reading and a book-signing and an award dinner and her prize-winning story published in a newspaper with a million readers. There would be the train ride back to Arizona, a thousand dollars in her pocket, the twenty copies of her novel she had lugged along sold, her that much less impoverished, that much lighter.
The bell-person picked up Carrie's bags and nodded to the peeker. “Good afternoon, Tiana,” he said, “we need to come into the hall please.” The person lowered a hand and moved aside. “Thank you,” the bell-person said. He wore a name-tag that read, Philip: your bell-person. He was tall, slender and mocha with cream—which he'd pointed out when he'd admired Carrie's turquoise shirt and noted that it would look perfectly stunning on him, what with his build and his complexion, mocha with cream. “Don't you just love the bell-person?” he'd said. “An investor bought Royale and decided we needed a little class.”
They walked down the silent corridor. The old man, gypsy woman and Tiana had slipped quietly back into their rooms. All the other doors were closed. No ghostly television voices trembled in the air.
“It's so quiet,” Carrie said.
“There are mostly old folks up here,” Philip said. “If you go in their rooms, there's always their television with no sound, just the picture. They don't think it's strange, but I'll tell you, it is.” He unlocked her door, opened the narrow window and waved her over to the view. The lake caught the setting sun's last pale fire. The air had gone azure. Headlights came on as they watched. Clark St. and Lakeshore Boulevard rolled like sequined ribbons over the dark shoreline.
“How beautiful,” Carrie said. “It's like looking down into a mysterious canyon.”
“You're a poet,” Philip said. “That must explain why your suitcase weighs a ton. Books. Yes?”
“Books,” she said, “but not poetry. I've just had a book published about the Sixties.”
“Fabulous,” he said. “Right on! That's what you used to say, right?”
“Oh yes,” Carrie said, “that's what we used to say.”
“I wish I'd been me then,” he said. “I would have loved it. Everybody so free, everybody so pretty.”
“You would have fit right in,” Carrie said.
“So why are you here?”
“I won a writing prize and I'm giving a reading for the Chicago Green Tribe.”
“My goodness,” Philip said, “I didn't know there were green folks here.” He winked.
“They're urban environmentalists,” she said. “You know like tree-huggers?”
“Sounds a little kinky to me,” he grinned. “Plus where do they find the trees?”
Carrie had a little seizure of wanting to educate him and let it pass.
“Well, you're a writer,” Philip said, “and I'm a reader. I've just started this book by Bette Davis—or maybe it's about Bette Davis. It is fabulous.”
“We writers love you readers,” Carrie said.
“Well yes,” he said, “you love us all the way to the bank!”
“Not some of us,” Carrie laughed and tucked a ten into his hand. “Thanks.”
Philip fussed with the curtains, stepped into the micro-bathroom to check the towels and turned to the desk. “Why you've got a message already,” he said. “You know, I bet you're the Royale's first star.” He opened the door and stepped out into the hall. “If you need anything just call down and ask for the bell-person.”
“Count on it,” Carrie said.
She checked the message. She was to call Larch Green and if she wasn't there, leave a message with Aspen Green. He was the computer guy and could reach her fast. Larch's phone went to message. “So, hi! Green Tribe loves you. Cool that you…” Aspen picked up. He wasn't sure, but he thought there had been a change in things. It would take a minute to get Larch. She was in her tent on the roof. Carrie lay down on the bed and waited.
“Awesome,” Larch said, “you're here. And I got a place!”
“Good,” Carrie said, “because the reading's in two hours.”
Larch giggled. “For sure.”
“How about p.r.?” Carrie asked.
“Well,” Larch said, “we didn't quite get the press releases out because the printer went down plus we ran out of paper, but I made a great poster and the folks and I went out last night and put up about a hundred of them.”
“Last night,” Carrie said sternly.
“Well actually more like early this morning, but we did it right where it would count. Right in the more-or-less hippie section you know, and they don't actually plan things very far ahead, so this'll be perfect.
“In the hippie section,” Carrie said. “I didn't know there were still hippies.”
“There are tons of hippies. It's the new Hippie Revival. You'll see. The place will be packed. Plus we put the posters up with wheat paste so they'll be up forever. You'll have publicity forever!”
“So,” Carrie said carefully, “you didn't send out any press releases or info to your mailing list and you put up one hundred posters early this morning.”
“Check,” Larch said. “Me and Grateful Dave and Juniper. So, here's the only prob. This hall is over near Wrigley Field and there's a big game tonight, so there won't by any parking so I was wondering how you'd feel about taking the bus? There's only a couple transfers. I mean, how many books did you bring? If it's no prob?”
“It is,” Carrie said firmly. “I expected to be picked up and I brought twenty books, big heavy real books, so the bus is a big prob.”
“Whoa,” Larch said, “just a little bit of a bummer. But, I'll call around.”
“Good,” Carrie said, “when will I expect you?”
“Well, the reading's at 8:30 and I'll have to drop you off and go park, so me and most likely Dave'll pick you up at 8:00.”
“And bring me back here immediately after the reading, right? It's been a long day.” She saw it all spinning out, the reading starting at 9, the clean-up starting at 11, the tire gone flat on the van or rusted-out V-Dub, no jack, no WD-40, the lug nuts salted onto the wheel, the giggling Larch and stoned Grateful Dave getting the spare on and discovering it was flat.
“Yeah,” Larch said sorrowfully, “the only bummer is I'll have to park the car nine thousand miles away? So I'll have to leave the reading an hour early and I'll miss a lot of it?”
Silence hung between them. Carrie closed her eyes. They all talked like that, the earnest kids who ate vegan and wore Guatemalan wall hangings and swallowed their anger as thought it would pollute their tofu-ridden diets. The question mark was one of the minor curses of group consensus.
“Yep,” Carrie said.
“Well,” Larch said, “catch you later.”
Carrie hung up, put in a wake-up call for an hour later and pulled the bedspread up to her chin. “Well, vuja dej,” she said. Her youngest kid had made that up. It was the feeling that something was happening that had happened before and you wished with your whole heart it wasn't.
“I'm still political,” Carrie would tell new acquaintances. “I know. That went out with that decade which was actually more like two, except in the mainstream media.”
The new acquaintances would either go glazed in the eyes and that was the end of the conversation; or grin conspiratorially and the two of them would be off and running. Carrie looked the part, long Joplinish hair and huge gray eyes that showed everything. She wore soft bright tunics and jeans and silver jewelry—moons, snakes and ancient symbols in which she confessed with a laugh, she believed.
When the Harmonic Whoopla had converged and subsided, Carrie had been sarcastic about it—and told no-one that she'd sat the whole day on her back porch alone, letting the high desert light wash over her, watching the ravens and hummers go through their ordinary astonishing paces. The harmony had nailed her somewhere between the shadows of the great pines and sunset burnishing a raven's wing. It had tugged at her heart, had pulled tidal at two decades of memories and sent them cresting with the light on the treetops.
She'd looked into the edge between light and shadow and found herself remembering a filthy sidewalk in front of a Chicago five and dime. Terror had pulsed in her throat as she handed out leaflets asking for the desegregation of Woolworth's, as she heard the words “nigger-lovers” for the first time. She saw the Pentagon and felt her kids' hands in hers, a poncho over all four of then, while cool rain misted the silent crows and somebody sang, “Amazing Grace” for all the young men and women dead. She saw again the handcuff burns on Barbara's wrists and her burning eyes as she talked of climbing the Army Depot fence, of weaving yarn and lavender through the wire, of the arrests, of most of the armed missiles being moved at midnight, while those still free watched and sang.
Light and memories had ebbed. The August evening had gone opal. She made supper and, as easily as the meal fell together under her hand, a story had begun to gather in her. She ate and went to bed, to sit braced against pillows, writing on a legal pad, the next night again and seemed to wake a year later, having somehow worked, cooked, fought for the protection of a local mountain and written the story on an electric typewriter, with the complete manuscript in her hands and the contract in the mail.
Sisters of Change, by Carrie Jackson.
The publishing house was a small one. They placed a few ads of only one sentence: If you ever dreamed of something better across the cover, a woman's face, wild hair held back by a violet scarf, eyes fierce, banners behind her—Stop the War. Jobs not bombs. To Carrie's surprise, the book sold well. When she signed one and handed it to a reader, she felt as though she passed over a loaf of home-made bread. When her other stories began to appear in magazines, she felt they were children finding homes. And when interviewers asked her if she wrote women's work, she laughed.
Suddenly there was an agent, a good one—and the necessity, if not the advance, for the next book, and possibly a third. She quit her baking job, cashed in the last of her retirement and kept writing.
When the call came from the contest she'd forgotten she'd entered, and she had won Second Place with big bucks, a free trip to Chicago and an award dinner, she'd hesitated. The prizes would be tucked between two book tours, her solitude the price of collecting them in person. Then someone from the Green Tribe saw the announcement in the paper, called and wondered if there could be a benefit reading. “You could totally sell books and speak truth to power at the same time!”
Larch would organize the benefit reading. They had three whole months. It was going to be incredible. Carrie would love the Green Tribe. They were working for the environment right in the belly of the Beast. Larch would contact the women's bookstore and a couple late-for-it New Age shops. She'd get releases out to all the media. There were tons of possibilities and there were tons of folks wanting to help get the word out. It was meant to be. Carrie was perfect for it and Mother Earth was smiling up at all of them.
Carrie drifted into a half sleep, Chicago humming ten stories below. She saw Larch's Beast, sequined scales glittering on its back and tail, neck stretched out along the lakeshore, its grinning mouth gobbling up cars and commuters. She was cradled in its belly and she wondered why she wasn't afraid.
She was asleep when the wake-up call came. The room had gone nearly dark, the walls seeming to fade in and out of focus, the mirror shimmering. She showered, dressed and gathered up her purse and books.
The elevator creaked slowly down to L. Carrie stepped out into the mirrored lobby. The desk clerk had been replaced by a round balding man with a tarnished name tag that read Ruti. He and the bell-person were considering the merits of near-by fried chicken joints. A tiny man in high-water pants, white shirt, neat red tie and Buddy Holly glasses was perched on a bench in the shallow alcove. He was smoking a cigar and monitoring the discussion.
“Here she is!” Philip cried. He pointed at her with his drumstick. “The Star!”
“Ah,” Carrie said, “please don't bow. Where can I get a good fast supper?”
“Where indeed?” the desk clerk said in a Russian accent.
The tiny man grimaced. “Yeah, where indeed.”
“In this neighborhood,” Philip said, “you have your choice of lousy Italian, mediocre Continental or outstanding fried chicken and waffles, if you're into it.”
“Chicken and waffles. It's been years. Point me in the right direction.”
“Just down the block,” Philip said. He wiped his fingers on a napkin and dug into his pocket. “Do me a favor? Before you get too famous and pretend you don't know me.”
“Get me an order of the waffles to go. Just tell them to cook them like Philip likes them. They'll know.” He handed her a five. The tiny man leaned forward.
“Yeah,” he said. He had the voice a whisky-drinking lizard would have if it talked and had lived its whole life on the west side of Chicago. “While you're at it, I'll take two cups of coffee to go, decaf, no sugar, double creams, a stirrer and a napkin.” He tucked another bill in her hand.
“And you,” Carrie said to the desk clerk.
“Nothing, darling. Except perhaps one of your smiles. That would be enough.”
“It's yours,” she said. “Which way down the block?”
“Turn left when you're out the door,” Philip said, “and if the Mexican guy is cooking, tell him the waffles are for Felice. He'll know.”
When Carrie returned, Philip/Felice was reading the sports page. Ruti was on the phone. The lizard man had put on a black straw fedora and was studying the smoke that rose from his cigar.
“What timing,” Philip said. “There's someone named Sycamore on the phone for you just this second.”
The desk clerk covered the phone and glanced up. “Heart be still,” he said. “Who is this Sycamore? A husband, a friend, a lover god forbid?”
“I'm not sure,” Carrie said, “but I suspect I won't want to hear what I'm about to hear.” She handed over the waffles and de-caf and picked up the phone.
“Sycamore? From the Green Tribe?” a girl said.
“Carrie here. What's up?”
“Little bit of a bummer here? No car? Grateful Dave's stuck in Gary. Nobody's sure what's going on, you know? Can you take a cab? We'll take it out of the benefit money?”
“I can do that,” Carrie said, “but I'd rather not.”
“Really,” Sycamore said, “I hear you. But this just came up and what can we do?”
“We could cancel,” Carrie said.
“Omygod, no. No way. I mean, people are probably coming from all over the city, you know? I mean, Larch and Grateful Dave and I put up all those posters and she called, like, ten people today? She'd feel totally bummed?”
“Can I talk to her?”
“She's not here. She went to rescue Grateful. She'll meet you at the hall. She told me to tell you that and tell you how to get there. It's no big deal, right?”
“If there's no car, how did Larch go to pick up Grateful?” Carrie said. She looked up. Ruti, Philip and the lizard man watched her. The lobby was silent.
“She took Oak's bike.”
“To Gary, Indiana?”
“It's a bike bike,” Sycamore said, “you know? She's great on it. Listen, it's all going to work out beautiful. You'll see. You're meant to be here. We are all so psyched!”
“I'll take a cab,” Carrie said. Sycamore gave her the directions.
“Sounds complicated,” Carrie said.
“Not really. Now you just breathe right down into that stress? I can hear it in your voice? Just let that holy breath suck all the tension out of you. When you see this place, you're going to know we've done the right thing.”
Carrie sucked in air and choked on the lizard man's cigar smoke.
“There you go,” Sycamore said. “Out with the bad energy, in with the good. See you soon.”
Carrie hung up. The lizard man stubbed out his cigar. “Need a ride?” he rasped.
“I do,” Carrie said. “Soon. I better call a cab.”
“Wait, I got an idea,” he said. Where you going?”
“Over near Wrigley.”
“I'll drive you there for ten bucks. It's a bargain.”
“Fine,” Carrie said.”
“You could take the El,” Philip said. “It's a little grim, but it's cheaper.”
“Thanks, pal,” the lizard man said.
“No,” Carrie said, “I've got all those books.”
“Have mercy,” Philip said, “too well I remember.”
She looked at him. He had finished off the waffles and was devouring a big Snickers bar. “How do you do it?” She laughed. “Put all that food away and stay slender?”
“Professional secret,” he said. “Tell me yours, I'll tell you mine.”
“I run myself ragged,” she said. “Hence tonight's engagement. I can't say 'no'.”
“Me either,” Philip said. He delicately slapped his cheek. “Shame on you, Philip, for lying. These days a smart person spend his nights alone. Lonely, but alive! So far.” He cross his elegant fingers and shook them at Carrie.
“Tonight,” she said, “you could go with me. Really. You wish you'd been around during the Sixties—tonight you will be.”
“I could,” he said. “In fact, I just might. I love adventures.”
“It's slow here,” Ruti said. “You run along. I remember how it is to be young…with a beautiful lady…on a late summer night.”
Philip looked Carrie in the eye. “Maybe two beautiful ladies?”
“Right,” she said, “on, sister.”
“There,” he said, “right out of the pretty pretty Paisley Days. I'll be Felice. Who will you be?”
“A Star,” Carrie said. “We need to leave in ten minutes.”
Felice was born for it. She could have put on a t-shirt and old jeans and been stunning. She'd opened her gray silk blouse down to the third button so you could barely glimpse her black satin bra. Her skirt was just short enough to be lady-like and show off her spectacular legs. Carrie thought you could put whipped cream on her high-heeled sandals and eat them, that's how delicious they were. Felice had lined her eyes in black and tied a pale gray paisley scarf around her curls. Carrie studied their reflections in the mirrored lobby.
“There will be some confusion,” she said, “about the identity of the Star.”
“Honey,” Felice said, “all girls are Stars,” and led Carrie out to the 1975 Buick idling like a B-52 at the curb.”
The lizard man could barely see over the top of the steering wheel. The air was cloudy with cigar smoke. “Mike,” Felice said, “open all the windows and put out that cigar. Our Star needs her voice.”
Mike rolled down the windows, stubbed out his smoke, waved them in and was, in the heart-stopping instant of pulling out into Chicago night traffic, shape-shifter supreme. He was too good to be human. He was a lizard, darting in and out of unseen holes with a flick of the directionals. He skittered through green lights, slid through yellow, changed lanes in manic traffic and was gone before the other drivers saw him. Through it all, the Buick rode steady as a Buick.
Felice took a little bottle of Kahlua out of her purse, chugged some and handed the bottle to Carrie. “Mike's the best,” Felice said. “One midnight I was late for my most recent date ten centuries ago and Mike made it from here to Hyde Park in half an hour. I put on my whole face without a slip, eyeliner and all.” S/he patted Mike's shoulder. He nodded and wheeled up to a dark building on a dark corner. Wrigley's glow fanned up above the roof-top.
“You sure you girls want to go in there?” Mike said. “You sure you wouldn't rather go to the game?”
A third-floor window suddenly glowed yellow. A woman leaned out and hollered. “Hey, is that you? Our writer? Come on up. It's outrageous here.”
“You know where we are,” Felice said to Mike. “There's got to be a phone in there somewhere. If we can't get a ride back, we'll call Ruti.”
“Check,” Mike said and without a ripple, moved out into the traffic.
“Well,” Felice said brightly. “Here we go!” Carrie nodded and followed her. There was a bare forty-watt bulb in the hallway, a dead avocado plant and sneaker prints for three feet up the wall. They climbed the stairs.
“Up here,” a woman called. Felice and Carrie followed the scent of incense. A pale bare-foot girl in an Indian bedspread skirt leaned around a corner and waved a bowl filled with smoking twigs at them. “Juniper,” she said.
“Hey, Juniper, I'm Carrie.”
“No,” the girl said, “I'm Sycamore. This is juniper? It cleanses spaces of bad energy? We always do it when something special is happening. And, you are completely special. We are soooo psyched.”
“Felice,” Carrie muttered, “we are in a worm hole in space and time. You're going to get to say 'right on.' Remember to raise your left fist up and punch the sky.”
“I am soooo psyched,” Felice said and picked her way carefully between the stacks of flyers that lined the hall.
Sycamore waved them forward to a set of double doors. She flung the doors open and waved the smoking twigs lavishly in the doorway. Carrie and Felice peered in.
“Can you believe this?” Sycamore said.
Carrie stepped into the big, bare, gloomy space. “I'm afraid I do.” The el roared by the huge curtained factory windows and drowned out her words. She looked up at the sagging lights. “I wish I didn't, but I do.”
Sycamore carried the smoking juniper to each corner of the room. Carrie looked down at the oil-splotched floor. “What are you doing?” she asked. “You could burn this place down.” The girl didn't speak. She laid her finger across her lips.
“Hush,” Felice said, “she means hush.” They watched Sycamore set the smoking bowl in the middle of the room. She stood over it and washed the smoke up over her body. “Would you like some smoke? It's great for the kind of stress you're holding inside, Carrie. I told you it's for cleansing.” Carrie heard the same tremendous patience with which long ago, she had explained draft resistance to her father.
“I'd love some smoke,” Felice said, “I never turn down good smoke.”
S/he and Carrie stood next to the bowl. Sycamore picked up the bowl and walked around them. She murmured something, but the el roared by and her words were lost.
“Sycamore,” Carrie said. “Thanks, but I'm supposed to read in here?”
“For sure,” she said, “look how totally amazing this place is.” She pulled back the dusty curtains and flicked on the lights. The back wall was painted with a faded tiger's head circled by a motto: Hard work, hard play, hard men for hard times. Founded 1931.
“You know who said that?” Sycamore said, “I forget his name, but he was a Wobbly, you know like power to the people. This very building was a hotbed of radical action hundreds of years ago!”
“Hmmmm,” Felice murmured, “love those hotbeds.”
“In fact,” Carrie said—and wished she could stop being so superior—“the Wobblies started up in 1905, less than a hundred years ago. Sycamore, I'm sorry I'm being such a bitch, but this is impossible. There are no chairs. There are not five minutes of consecutive silence. There is, most importantly, no audience. It's eight-fifteen, the reading is at 8:30 and there's no-one here but us, nobody psyched, nobody—especially me.”
“Things start late in Chicago,” Sycamore said cheerily. “The chairs are down the hall in the Wobblies' office. The el makes things more, like, real? You and your friend relax. I'll get the guys from the Wobbly office and we'll have everything set up in a jiffy.”
The guys from the Wobbly office were two kids in their early twenties and they knew what they were doing. The set up six rows of chairs, a table and laid out back issues of the IWW News. The tall one pinned a black cat button on Carrie and dusted off a chair for Felice. They sat down in the front row. Carrie sat down next to the tall one.
“I don't believe it,” she said. “The IWW. You guys. When did it happen?” She touched the little button with its pissed-off black cat and the slogan, Direct Action Gets the Goods.
“It's been cooking in Oakland for a couple years,” the kid said. “Then Portland. Check this out.” He handed her a paper. There were photos of miners in cammie, trashed trucks and women and men running a soup kitchen.
“Right on,“ Felice said. The boy raised his fist. Felice raised hers and crossed her legs. The boy glanced down and blushed. Felice smiled brilliantly.
“Maybe later,” the boy said, “I could like show you our office?”
“I would love it,” Felice said.
A lanky young woman with dusty auburn dreds looked into the room. Where her belly pushed out her overalls, she'd embroidered a wreath of violets and a baby's face. She wiped at her red face with a wet bandana. A short hairy guy pushed past her through the door. He zoomed up to Felice and shook her hand.
“Right on, sister!” he said. “I'm a writer too. Grateful Dave, followed the Dead for years. I'm their unofficial court poet. RIP Jerry.”
“Oh dear,” Felice said, “you've mistaken me for your sister.” She extracted her hand and smiled. “And, I'm not the writer. She is.”
Grateful Dave grabbed Carrie in a bear hug. She hadn't smelled the reek of patchouli in years, and never on a man. She stepped back. “The other folks are almost here,” he said. “Everybody from the Tribe. They are so psyched!' He was amphetamine wiry, his skin burned brown, his fatigues embroidered with stars and rainbows. “Now, Carrie,” he said, “I'd like to do a little improv along with your reading, not much, just a little free-form poetry as the spirit moves me.”
“No,” Carrie said. “I don't think so.” She corralled the lanky woman by the elbow. “You're Larch. Right?” Larch nodded.
“Who's coming, Larch?” Carrie asked. “How many Green Tribe people? Exactly.”
“Five? Maybe six? If Hickory can get out of work.”
“Come with me,” Carrie said.
“I'll keep things moving right along,” Felice said. She smiled at Dave. “Now who are these thankful dead people you've written poems about?
Carrie led Larch out through the doors into the hallway. Larch stopped and held out her arms. “Could we hug?” she asked.
Larch folded into herself, as much as her belly would allow. “I'm sorry to invade your space. You just seem kind of tense.”
“Larch,” Carrie said, “what happened to the press releases I sent three months ago?”
“Well, we had this nukewatch and then some things happened and the next thing I knew our house ate them?”
“Your house ate them,” Carrie said.
“Well, sort of.”
“Larch, you mean you lost them. Say that to me. Say, 'I lost them.'”
“Well, like I did, kind of?”
Larch twisted the longest dred in her slim fingers and giggled. “I lost the press releases you sent,” she said and burst into tears.
“Thank you,” Carrie said and waited for the flood to quit, which it did almost immediately. “When are the others coming? It's almost nine. I'm tired. I've been traveling for two days.”
“Soon,” Larch said. “Listen, I'm sorry? Some things I didn't expect happened? Me and Grateful? Well, I'm going to like have a child. His? And mine? You know?”
“Whoa,” Carrie said.
“That's what he said when I told him, “Larch said. “It's his ninth kid!”
The el drowned out the rest of her words. In the roar, they went back into the hall. The remainder of the Green Tribe drifted in and sat in the first row. There was an indecently gorgeous man with red-gold hair; a chubby woman with two kids clinging to her hands; a standard-issue hiking boots and jeans tree-hugger; an intense young man with wire-rim glasses in head to toe Salvation Army double-knit; and a man with greasy hair who wore a Nam jacket he was far too young for and who immediately fell asleep.
Dave stepped to the front of the room. “And now I present a true sister in the struggle, Carrie Jackson and her radical book, Mothers of Change!”
“Sisters,” Carrie said and moved him aside. “My book—which in some ways is your book—is Sisters of Change. Felice raised her fist. “Right on!”
Carrie began. “At first, it seemed more like a dream than life…” The el roared by. Carrie stopped. She waited a few seconds, then went on. “Laraine dropped her knapsack on the street that wound up toward Coit Tower. How could it be that she was here. Here….” The el roared by. Carrie read again. Once, she made it for five minutes, looked up from the page and found Grateful Dave standing next to her. He repeated her last words and was off and running.
“Always moving, always moving and grooving and truthing and lying…exploiting, exploited, Detroited and more.” He waved at her to go on.
The greasy-haired man roused himself. “Yeah. That's right.” The el cut him off. Felice pressed her long thigh against the young Wobbly's. Larch nodded to Carrie and left. The kids had detached from their mom and were shrieking in the hall. Carrie turned the page and waited for the el to release her.
“In silence,” Grateful Dave shouted, “in violence, in the land of the pigs, in the land of innocence and guilt and…” The gorgeous man caught Carrie's eye, winked and held his hands out in a gesture of piece. She started to read again. The el slammed by. She walked to the windows.
“Fuck you!” she bellowed.
“Right on,” Felice said.
“Yes,” Grateful Dave said, “yes. YES!”
The Tribe was on its feet.
“So,” Carrie said, “I'm going to keep reading. I hope you can hear me. We can't let the oppressor silence us.” She wished she felt as comradely as she sounded. There had been too many years and too many miles for that.
Carrie finished the chapter. The Tribe cheered. “I brought some books,” she said. “Love to have you buy some.”
“How much are they?” Sycamore said.
“Fifteen bucks,” Carrie said. Their faces were sweetly blank. “Twelve, a special deal for you,” she said.
“Whoa,” Grateful said, “we're in voluntary poverty.”
“It's okay,” Carrie said and handed a book to Larch. “Here's a donation for the cause. Pass it around.”
Felice pulled a twenty out of her purse. “I'll take one. If you sign it.”
“Thank you,” Carrie said, “Thank you so much.”
“Circle up,” Grateful Dave said. The Tribe came up to Carrie. The gorgeous man took her right hand. Larch took the other. The kids squeezed through their mom's legs and sat in the center.
“We like to share for a few minutes after something like this,” Sycamore said. Carrie's heart dropped. A few minutes. A few hours. Her head ached. The lights had begun to remind her of a particularly nasty two weeks she'd once spent in a psych unit.
The greasy-haired man pointed at Carrie. “What's the essential hegemonic context of your work? I mean in terms of a Marxist critique.”
“Rage,” Carrie said.
“I thought so,” he said.
She looked into his cold eyes. “Which, if you hadn't gone to sleep, you would have heard.”
Sycamore waved her hands in the air. “Oooooh, peace. Clear that negative energy everybody.”
“Maybe next time,” the Wobbly said, “you could put in more about the workers' struggle, get in some stuff about trade unions and like that?”
“Maybe you could,” Carrie said. “I bet you write.”
He grinned. “Maybe I could.”
“Well,” the mother said, “I thought your book was right on. I really did.”
The handsome man tossed back his hair. “I'll tell you how I see it later,” he said. Felice winked.
“Time for the group hug,” Grateful said. They clasped arms around each others' waists. The handsome man held Carrie firmly. Felice was blissful between the two Wobblies. Sycamore leaned into the center of the circle. She smelled of coconut oil and garlic.
“We love you,” she said to Carrie. Grateful reached around Felice and patted Carrie's butt in a comradely way and grinned. He had no teeth. She wondered why she hadn't seen that. She forgave him everything. She forgave all of them. She was abruptly in that sweet muzzy wash of solidarity she always felt after a reading.
The circle broke. Carrie pick up a book bag and nodded to Felice. She felt a warm hand on her shoulder. The handsome man turned her gently toward him. He bent his head and pulled her close.
“I want to tell you a marvelous secret,” he said. Beyond his broad shoulder, Felice watched. Carrie wondered what she saw. She wondered if those great dark eyes saw the ten years alone, the truth that the last real love-making was almost lost from memory, and that Carrie was most alive and lonely. She wondered if Felice had already guessed that when Carrie signed her book she would write, “Dear sister…”
“Listen up,” man said, “you need to know this.” Carrie nodded. His body was urgent and lithe against hers. She wondered if there was room in the Royale bed for two.
“Those els are full of beautiful people,” he said. “They really are.” He moved her back at arms' length and looked deep into her eyes. He pulled her back into his brotherly arms.
“I know that,” she said. “I really do know that.” She thought of the eighteen books lying heavy in their bag and the sixty precious bucks she had spent on the Royale. She thought of the wish she had brought with her, that the Green Tribe really was taking action in the belly of the beast, that they were eating the monster from the inside out, instead of earnestly wambling around giving the beast a mild case of indigestion. The cutie held her face in his hands and made her look at him. She wanted to smack him. Carrie thought of how the night would have been without Felice's steady gaze. She stepped out of the man's touch and grinned at Felice.
“Hey, Felice,” she said, “the man here says we need to remember that those els are full of beautiful people.”
Felice curled her fingers into a fist and raised her elegant left arm high.
“Right on, honey,” she said. “Right on!"