a short story by Frank Diamond
I awake and reach for Raison, but she’s not in bed. I check the time. Midnight. Halloween crosses over into All Saints Day.
“Raison!” I call.
Focus, Sebastian! Focus!
Raison’s smartphone rests on her nightstand, hooked to the charger. I call out more as I dress and hurry downstairs. On the front porch sits a desultory grab-bowl of candy for trick-or-treaters we damn well knew wouldn’t come this year, but decided to do what we always do and to hell with COVID-19.
I step out the door, walk to the edge of our drive, look around the cul-de-sac and down the street. Dim lights waver in windows. Nothing. No Raison. I come back inside, look in the garage. Both cars still there.
Why didn’t she take her phone?
I head out back. Our property ends where Lenape Lake Park begins, separated by a chainlink fence that’s topped off by a spiked edge even though I have the best home monitoring anti-burglary system available. We’re one of that group of about 10 big houses in the development with backs turned toward 1,200 acres of nature. My yard slopes down from my screened-in deck to the fence and a gate that opens when you punch the code.
It’s a beautiful bug-free view from our patio that includes the lake itself and much of the acreage that surrounds it. These days horse trails wind lonely over the fields and through the hills for the horses who remain stabled at Squire Farm; being let out for stretches on most days so that they can galumph around, nickering, snorting, chuffing and just glorying in their horseyness. Beautiful, powerful, stupid animals.
Raison must be on one of her nocturnal park walkabouts. She does that lately. We’d always discounted warnings that retirement or the laying off of one or more partners could strain a marriage. After all, we’d worked in the same building for years. True, we drove separately into the city, coming and going at different times. We mostly communicated in the manner that at-work couples on opposite sides of the city, or even the planet would communicate — that is by text or email — and could go weeks without crossing paths in the office. The Philadelphia Eagle-Gazette’s newsroom spreads for an entire city block, and occupies three floors. But, still, Sebastian and Raison Rush worked together. Being quarantined shouldn’t have been stressful.
But it was.
I’ll walk too, I decide. She’s never gone out this late. I’ll find her. But what if I don’t? Do I call the cops? I don’t want to think about it. There used to be a park ranger on night shift, but no more.
No more after one of those rangers, Ted Gibson, died from COVID-19 in the spring. They effectively shuttered the park and furloughed most of the other rangers — I guess about eight in all. We see one cruiser patrolling now and then, and make note of it as if it were an endangered species which, I suppose, it is. Would I have called Ted Gibson by now in this situation? He’d long ago given us his private cell number. But this late? No. First, I’d look. I shrug into my light waterproof black jacket, pivot out the backdoor. I shiver, it’s colder than I expected but I’ll warm up soon enough. I pull the hood and over my head. It hides my face.
All I need now is the sickle.
I loop over the grassy divide separating my house and Park Road, a flashlight’s beam illuminating where I’ll next step lest I sprain an ankle or take a tumble over a gully or rock.
I swing the beam along Park Road when I step onto it and continue, as if disinfecting where thousands have gone before. Cars with families, four-by-fours with bubbas and babes, Harleys with bikers, school buses with little kids, trucks towing boats, jeeps carrying kayaks — they all rolled in and out along this thoroughfare up until March 2020.
When you call the ranger station these days you get the COVID message. Yes, the park remains open for limited activities. Very limited. The paddle boathouse and bathrooms? Closed. The picnic areas with their benches, tables, wooden canopies and brick built-in grills? No go. Masks must be worn, social distancing enforced. Bring your own hand sanitizer. Fishing, yes, if you insist.
For inquiries, please leave a detailed message.
“Sebastian Rush?” I said. As if I’m asking to speak to myself. “I’ve called maybe once or twice before?”
I said: “Are there squatters in Lenape Lake Park? Yes, there are squatters in Lenape Lake Park.” As if whoever might eventually hear this had asked me that question, and I am repeating (just to make sure I heard right) before answering.
My flashlight reveals several deer over by a thicket. I hold the beam on them as the spotlight on a prison tower might hone in on escapees. People who use the cliche “deer in the headlights” would possibly reassess if they could see this. For these deer stare arrogantly — even belligerently — into the source of their interruption.
I stamp my foot, hiss “shoo!” They seem to shrug, and then take their time turning back into the cover.
Ted Gibson had pushed for allowing an annual mini-deer-hunting season at Lenape Lake Park. “That’s what they do down in Philly in Neshaminy Park. The deer population is too big there, too.”
He didn’t win that one. Traffic on highways surrounding the park culls the herds, the evidence of winnowing can be seen many mornings in the torn carcasses on the side of the road.
“That and some of them just starve,” Ted Gibson had said.
I read in Ted’s obit in the Eagle-Gazette that he’d just turned 60, which surprised both me and Raison. While we weren’t exactly friends, over the years we and Ted would every now and then chat in one of the parking lots strategically placed in Lenape Lake Park, or Ted would pull his patrol car up along as we walked on the side of Park Road. The vehicle would sputter from going so slow, but never quite die.
“And how are the Rushes doing today?”
“Fine, Ted. And you?”
Times when Ted got out of his patrol car, a seeming appendage of the man, his frame blocked the sun. Ted obviously worked out, though he never said as much. A bald head whose shape and glisten can fairly be described as beautiful, welcoming countenance ruled by inquisitive eyes, and what we used to call a winning smile, a phrase that you — or at least I — don’t hear much anymore. That is Ted. That was Ted. I’d pegged him to be in his mid-40s.
“Sebastian. Raison. Good to see you again, as always,” he’d say before driving off.
“As always,” one or both of us would echo.
Now, I stop, call out.
“Raison!” My voice can’t quite break through the tree-line and carry over the lake. Nonetheless, I wait for a response, something that would let me know she’s OK and would make this search so much easier. Is she home by now? Tucking the flashlight under my armpit, I speed dial her.
Hi. You’ve reached Raison Rush. Please leave a….
I click off. She would have called if she’d gone back home and found I wasn’t there.
My trek continues. I shine my light into trees that have exploded in color in recent weeks. I can see some of that glory, but the night weighs heavy. I remember they’d predicted rain and I can actually taste it in the air as if I’d been raised on a farm and hadn’t spent most of my life living in suburbs and working in cities. I walk on, quickening the pace, wanting to outrun the weather.
Ted Gibson once told me: “It’ll snow tomorrow.”
This was one year around Thanksgiving and if it had been any balmier of a day, I would have worn a short-sleeve shirt.
“Where’d you read that?” I asked. I knew it wasn’t in the Eagle-Gazette.
“I get a sense for these things,” he said.
I took a stab.
“Navy Seals?” I asked.
He looked as if I might have cursed him in a language that I’d assumed he didn’t understand, but he did.
“Now how did you know that?” he asked.
“I get a sense for these things.”
Clues, really, the first being that Ted isn’t — wasn’t — on Facebook or LinkedIn or any other social media, as near as I can tell. Also, I’ve been uncovering stories my entire career. I have my methods. By the way, he was right, it did snow, beginning the next morning and priming our region with a couple of inches before moving north, gathering strength and eventually dropping a foot on Boston.
Sometimes these glancing relationships burrow deep. Or maybe it was just the year for mourning. For when we found out that Ted Gibson had died, Raison wept and I went out to the backyard just to hold back the urge to grab that pack of Marlboro’s I’d stashed under an awning the last time I gave up smoking.
Ted Gibson’s wake and funeral had been held in Philadelphia at one of the oldest AME churches in the country — about two months after Ted’s death. It had been sparsely attended, another ranger told me. The family had wanted to see if COVID would calm down so that they could give Ted a proper sendoff populated by the hundreds of people who loved and honored the man, but the pandemic out-waited them. Raison and I would have gone to that funeral together. We were a team, Raison and I, up until recently.
Raison had a job. I didn’t. Raison said “no matter,” but I think she couldn’t help, after a few weeks, resenting that she went to work everyday and I lived a life of leisure. No, not leisure. My living leisurely might have worked. I lived like much of the world during COVID: like a species under attack by an organism whose survival skills had been honed by billions of years of a head-start in evolution before what would eventually become mammals oozed out of the primeval slime.
I was on edge. Who am I now? Power and prestige may not matter in the long run, but then again, neither does anything else.
When did the secrets begin? Raison’s secrets. Put me on the stand and demand that I relate evidence that she kept something significant from me and nothing I could say would hold up in court. There’d been errands at odd times, phone calls that she took as she walked into her study out of earshot.
“You didn’t tell me you were going for a walk,” I said one time when she came in around 9 p.m.
“Five hours ago,” I said.
“Where did you think I was?”
I gestured toward her study.
“It’s not safe for you to walk at night,” I said.
“I called you.”
She took out her smartphone, saw that she’d missed the messages.Or, at least, acted as if she had.
“Oh. Sorry. I just needed some air. And now you’re upset.”
She came to me and sat on my lap, like she’d done when we were newlyweds.
“I am really sorry, Sebastian. It won’t happen again.” She kissed with an intensity that would make you wonder if she thought that we’d never see each other again. We must have looked ridiculous, two people of a certain age spooning like teens. That kiss led to what I suppose you could call make-up sex, although I wasn’t sure that we’d been fighting.
We met at our first jobs out of college at a small daily in Wyoming. East Coast kids in a dying industry who forged a friendship as ambitious outsiders who didn’t plan on staying long. I’d been hired as a copy editor, but they soon caught on that I couldn’t spell and made me a reporter. Raison had been hired as a reporter, but the managing editor (who thought her attractiveness had been a liability for dealing with the locals, rather than an asset it so clearly later turned out to be) wanted to protect her and put her on the copy desk when I hadn’t worked out. She turned out to be an excellent copy editor who hated the job. She wanted someday (soonish) to win a Pulitzer, and this wasn’t the way to do it.
She didn’t exactly blame me for how things turned out, but when we next met for beers after deadline she brought spelling flash cards.
“Come on, Sebastian. You can do it!”
“Let me be!”
Her beauty intimidated me. Here across from me sat a magazine model who’d somehow wandered into my reality. Coal black hair and Nordic ice-goddess blue eyes. A body that — if she’d been some years older — might spur accusations by competitors in the dating pool that it had been surgically sculpted along the lines of Wonder Woman. Even if I could win her did I really want to worry every second about who might be trying to steal her from me on that particular day?
Still, character will out. I saw her in action. When confronted with unwelcome advances, she adroitly volleyed them out of bounds. And we discovered an unexpected mutual interest and began attending Sunday Mass together. We’d both just emerged from long term college relationships and fell in love in a methodical manner until it became suddenly unmethodical and crazy and exhilarating and life-altering.
“I love Raison!” I shouted into one of the canyons in Curt Gowdy State Park.
“I’ll bet you scream that about all the goddesses,” she parried.
A half dozen relocations, two children, and some 30 years later a lot has changed, and a lot hasn’t. I’ve put on tonnage and Raison wears her hair short. But Raison’s still beautiful and I still can’t spell.
Wind suddenly gusts down Park Road rattling leaves. I turn off the road into the last rest stop area. I approach the pavilion next to the dog playground. A single vehicle, a cargo van, sprawls horizontally across three spaces. Tinted windows. I hurry on, passing the bathrooms and heading onto an asphalt pathway that leads into the woods.
As I move into the deeper darkness, an owl hooooos a territorial warning and I hear splashes echoing from Lake Lenape, which lays about a quarter mile to my left.
That’s how they did it, and this isn’t a revelation. I’d already considered that the squatters, or whoever they are, moved things onto the area where they were building by water. Now, other possible methods faded. They boated everything in. Of course they did. First, what they needed to clear the area and lay foundations, and then what must be sections of prefabricated structures.
In the three or four times that I’d walk by the area around midnight, I’d never heard hammering or sawing or clanging or drilling or anything else that you might associate with a construction site. They must know when strangers approach. They needed only to wait me out until I passed. Maybe they welcomed the chance to take a break.
The first time I walked close I heard them. It had rained earlier, and the wetness slicked just enough to cause trouble and I stepped carefully along, sometimes illuminating the journey with my flashlight, and sometimes just navigating by the light of the sort of starry night you can only find in woods separated from neon. Light unaided by a new moon. Yes, I heard them. Noises, human voices, tucked deep in the brush that only the deer leap through. How did they even get in there?
They waited. I waited. I flicked off the flashlight. Do I call out? Do I aim a beam in their direction? I did neither. I walked on. I didn’t know who these people were. It wasn’t my job to confront them, tell them to leave. The rangers (or ranger) should know about this, though.
The next morning I went early, before Raison awoke, to the place where I’d heard the voices. Peering through the bramble I could just make out certain shapes that nature hadn’t created. How did they get in there? A wall of brush abundant with growth that pricked, cut, stung, clung, poisoned and tripped you up blocked passage. I couldn’t — wouldn’t — wade in. Where was the path that they’d used? I couldn’t find it but eventually, inspecting from many angles, I decided that the voices had carried from a building site of some substance. I checked the Eagle-Gazette and some local weeklies, and the Web for more — anything — about this development, but nothing.
“Why do you call them squatters?” Raison asked when I told her.
“They’re living on land that they don’t own?”
“They live there?”
“OK, building on land that they don’t own. At the very least.”
“You don’t really know who they are, Sebastian.”
True, but I’d gotten into the habit of calling them squatters.
On our power walks when we passed the hidden encampment, I tried to point out what lurked in the gloaming. While Raison expressed some interest, she really mostly focused hard on what she happened to be working on for the Eagle-Gazette and, besides, stopping and searching in shadows interrupted the good momentum we’d established. Exercise helps us process what happened.
Raison writes the gardening column for the Eagle-Gazette, delivering incisive observations to readers who want to get their hands dirty, but also to some who don’t; those who just hanker to admire one of the 40 or so public gardens in the metropolitan area. She tells them what to look for and where to go and what might be the best times to go and why they shouldn’t miss out because their souls need nourishment. Her readers. Our readers. I was executive editor of the Eagle-Gazette, the King of Content. Comforter of the Afflicted and Afflicter of the Comfortable.
We live where we do partly because Raison doesn’t want to tend a garden; that would be like taking work home. Lenape Lake Park fills her need for nature and she doesn’t have to sweat or dig or — especially — bend over or knee-walk because rheumatoid arthritis encroaches more and more on her everydays, circling her bones like forest vines but not choking off her spirit. Never that. For now, her morning stiffness wears off.
In the summer just past, the summer of rage over the murder of George Floyd, some protestors trampled Franklin Gardens in downtown Philadelphia to the point where only a few weeds may have survived, much to the shock of the Gardens overseers who’d have sworn under threat of perjury that not one weed ever grew on their turf. Weeds remind us that, in the end, nature wins. (Although COVID-19’s done a pretty good job of that, too.)
Raison, of course, hated what had happened at Franklin Gardens. Yes, she understood the outrage over the Floyd murder. She’s outraged, too. We both are. But public gardens should be quiet refuges for meditation. Leave the anger out on the street. Nature doesn’t recognize white privilege. Nature’s a great equalizer.
That had more or less been the thrust of Raison’s column. The irony is that we both know and love the copy editor who slapped that offensive headline on. And she still has a job because — poor woman — she’d lost a child to the coronavirus in the pandemic’s first wave and her marriage had started to crumble, as well.
The headline on Raison’s column?
“Gardens Matter, Too.”
And with those three words, my reign as executive editor of one of the largest newspapers in the country — nearly 200 years old and the winner of 20 Pulitzer Prizes — ended.
Dozens of newsroom staff staged a walkout saying, with total justification, that the headline riffs on the “Black Lives Matter” slogan of those protesting police violence against African Americans. That it, as one of my reporters put it, equated the life of a plant or flower with the life of young black men being summarily executed by police, and to all people of color who’ve been victimized by systemic racism implanted in the new world with the arrival of the first slaves in 1619.
Of course, we swapped out that headline immediately and I and two other top editors wrote a mea culpa to readers, and to Eagle-Gazette employees.
“We realize that an apology on its own is not sufficient,” we wrote. “This incident makes clear that changes are needed, and we will start immediately.”
Not immediately enough, it turned out.
There came an open letter from 41 “Journalists of Color of the Philadelphia Eagle-Gazette.” They wrote that they no longer wanted to pretend that “things are OK. The recklessness of management makes it harder to do our jobs, and even puts our lives at risk.”
There followed a flurry of recriminatory meetings and grievance airings and just an outpouring of — yes, I’ll use that word again — outrage. Upon every step of my journalism career, I fought for diversity. I can give bullet points … but none of that matters. I realize that I should have done more at the Eagle-Gazette. More diversity training, perhaps a weekly discussion group on racial bias. Perhaps I should have created the position of racial bias ombudsman.
But I didn’t.
“So for offending my colleagues — and for anything I’ve done to hurt the Eagle-Gazette, which is an institution I love and whose mission I believe in and try to serve — I am sorry,” I wrote in my farewell email to the newsroom. “I let you all down.” Some colleagues told me that I’d been scapegoated in a cleansing that had gone too far, but those “some” asked that I keep what they said confidential.
I explained to Raison that we didn’t both need to resign.
“You did nothing wrong,” I protested. “You had nothing to do with that headline.”
“Neither did you, Sebastian.”
I said: “We can’t both be out of work.”
People assume, because of our zip code, that we can retire early. But as the newspaper adage goes: “If your mother tells you she loves you, check it out.” Some bad investments here, victimized by a Ponzi scheme there (we never even told our two children about that one — how embarrassing), money spirals away. And about those children; grown but making bad decisions and not exactly asking Mom and Dad to bail them out, but we do anyway.
In the end, Raison stayed at the Eagle-Gazette. And because of COVID-19, she works from home.
And about that home.
“We’re going to have to downsize,” I told her. “Sell the house. Get an apartment somewhere.”
“You’ll get another job.”
When I brought up selling the house a few more times, Raison either dismissed my concern, or preempted the discussion.
“I will not talk about that right now,” she’d say.
We really don’t need to talk about it right now. We’d applied for, and gotten, mortgage forbearance under the CARES Act. I know that I should be able to get a job in marketing or advertising. I could also set myself afire, but would rather not. Even if I were to get something in publishing again — something I’d want to do — I’d most likely take a substantial pay cut. Raison thinks I’m being pessimistic. Perhaps but, still, any future I can at this point imagine involves selling our palace abutting Lenape Lake Park.
A palace — a fortress even — that I wish neither Raison nor I had left in these very early hours of All Saints Day. Because now comes the rain. There had been no buildup. No sporadic plopping of big drops whose staccato beat builds to a deluge. Instead, the flood cascades as if cannoned out of a firehose. It crashes through the trees and turns dormant gullies into springs just like that. Though my jacket and hood are waterproof, my pants, sneakers and socks are waterlogged. It takes a moment for the outpouring to flow off my face and down under my jacket, swamping my shirt, as well. I am soaked.
And I freeze. I am equidistant from home whether I forge ahead on the asphalt path through the woods or go back the way I came. Go on or go back? The latter makes more sense because it puts me on Park Road again where the water drains into the fields, and out of the tunnel the bending tree limbs make, away from the inclines of the walkway that fill like pools I’d have to wade through. Park Road would be the safer, saner choice.
There’s a third option, though. Go to the building site, stand in front of the wall of brush and call for Raison a few more times. She might be in there, I think. Why? That’s what my gut tells me. If she’s still missing when I return to the palace, at least I can tell the cops that I tried my best. Yes, go to the encampment and then turn back toward Park Road. This becomes Plan A. I slosh downhill, the water rising to my calves.
My screams turn into a choking fit. I am pummeled by rain and the flashlight slips from my grasp.
Darkness cocoons me. I bend, feel around for the flashlight in the current that’s already swept it away, taking Plan A with it.
To hell with Plan A.
I decide to turn back now toward Park Road, but I hate this decision, this defeat.
I stand, raise my fists to the sky and yell “Raison!” one last time. Suddenly, blinding light engulfs me and I remember falling backward and even the splash. Then darkness.
I regain consciousness in a haze of overheads. I can’t quite focus.
“You’re OK, Sebastian, baby.”
I blink Raison’s face into focus. She bends over, kisses my forehead. I am in bed. I assume I’m in a hospital.
“Where did you go, Raison? I thought…. I thought….”
I weep, hiding my face in my hands. I ache. I struggle to breathe. The walls of self-control have been ripped open. Raison gasps, pulls back a bit. She’s never seen me cry.
“You’ve had a shock, Sebastian,” she says, recovering and leaning over me again and caressing my head.
A familiar voice from behind Raison adds: “Literally and figuratively.”
Raison tilts out of my line of sight, but at first I don’t recognize Ted Gibson. Why should I? He’s dead. Also, he doesn’t wear a ranger uniform but rather a double-breasted suit, and this man sports a goatee. He smiles as if I should know him, which annoys me but then fills me with awe. I’ve seen that smile. I know that smile. Am I dreaming?
“Raison,” I say, gesturing with a limp hand. “Ted Gibson.”
“It’ll all be explained to you, my Sebastian. Great forces are loosed in the land and we’re building a new world.”
“New world,” I repeat.
Who is this woman?
I try to solidify Raison’s presence, holding a forearm near my eyes, filtering the light.
“A new Raison. A better Raison.”
“What are you on?” I accuse.
Ted Gibson (or whoever he is) chuckles.
“You’re in a better place, Sebastian,” Raison says. “We’re in a better place” Then in a voice that sounds like my Raison, she adds: “We’re keeping our house, baby! How do you like that?”
Her voice echoes and I look around. I am not in a hospital but rather what might be some brightly lit empty warehouse.
“Let’s get you ambulatory, Sebastian,” Ted Gibson says. Raison steps back and he steps up. He hooks his powerful hands under my armpits and lifts me to my feet. I glance at Raison who casts her eyes downward.
“I can stand,” I grouse. “Do you mind?”
Ted releases me and I remain upright, though I sway at first. Ted and Raison set themselves to stop my fall, but I do not fall.
“I know you’ve got questions,” Ted says.
“Let’s get you moving.”
He grabs one elbow, Raison the other and we begin walking around the parameter of the hollow building.
I say, “You are Ted Gibson.”
“He is,” Raison says. She glances at Gibson, who nods. They’re working off a script.
“You’re perfect for the job,” Ted says.
“We both are, Sebastian,” Raison adds.
When we turn a corner, I see that other people have entered and have set up a table on the far side. It’s a spread, and when I smell the food, I realize just how hungry I am. It’s all laid out by the time we get there. We sit and eat. Turkey, filling, mashed potatoes, gravy, asparagus. Hell, there’s even cranberry sauce. Thanksgiving’s come early this year. I gobble, they nibble. Ted talks, with Raison once in a while chiming in to further explain what’s being told to me about the movement, and my place in it.
I say, “This is like religion.”
Ted says: “We’re changing the world, Sebastian. That takes religious zeal. I don’t have to ask you if you’re with us. I know that you are. Raison here told me you would be.”
I’m not so sure, but keep that to myself.
I ask: “Is it really necessary for me to have to wear a dunce cap?”
“I’ll be at your side, Sebastian,” Raison says. “I’ll be wearing one, too.”
“Gee, Raison — my wife — somehow that doesn’t comfort me.”
She sighs, but for once I don’t blame myself for her exasperation.
I sigh, too.
“It’s ritual,” Ted says. “Part of the cleansing. We film it and then you — you Mediators, that’s you and Raison — will show that movie to EduCore recruits when you oversee their cleansings. It will help them to know that you went through it, too.”
After a few minutes of showing our filmed reeducation, according to the plan, we will address the recruits and explain how — just like in boot camp — our old selves, our old ways of thinking, needed to be broken down so that we could be sociologically rebuilt.
During this discourse, I am still sometimes struck by the surreality of being lectured to by a dead man. I can’t quite accept it.
At one point, I interrupt: “Does your family know, Ted?”
“My wife knows,” Ted says.
“But what about your kids? Your brother and sisters? Think of how they mourn for you.”
“Oh, I know, I know,” Ted says. “We’ve all got to sacrifice. At a certain point, I’ll tell them. Everyone will know come time.”
“When?” I ask.
Ted spreads his arms to encompass the almost empty warehouse that I now know rests at the building site I’d been trying to get to in Lenape Lake Park. It’s one of many Reconciliation Centers being constructed in secret (or hiding in plain view) throughout the United States.
“You’re not the only walker in the park who’s noticed this, Sebastian. To the outside, this is a recreation center in the making.”
The right people holding the right levers of power in the government of the United States have decided that evolution beats revolution and civil discourse trumps civil war. Reparations alone won’t accomplish that.
“This time, we’re not just throwing money at the problem,” Ted says.
No. A great reawakening flowers.
Raison and I will be Overseers of Mediation at this outpost, reporting directly to Ted and his cadre of new rangers. Each morning during the six weeks of camp, an SUV will pick us up outside our house on Park Road and deliver us to the Center. Hopefully, most of the EduCore “students” will graduate, but an unfortunate few will be sent off to other centers for more intense reeducation.
Then Raison and I will have three weeks off until the next EduCore boot camp begins.
“Why do you need us at all?” I ask, but I know the answer. The reawakening can’t be seen as a takeover by the people of color. It can’t be seen as repressive. If Sebastian Rush, with his background, understands the need for true change, then every white person should.
And Ted Gibson did know about my background, and even my father’s background. Why not? I never hid it. I even wrote a column or two about it.
Dad attended Notre Dame in the 1960s, and became — for want of a better word — a disciple of Father Ted Hesburgh, the priest in the famous photograph marching while griping hands with Martin Luther King, Jr. Dad only a couple of times talked about that civil rights rally in Soldier Field in Chicago in June 1964. Hesburgh and King are singing “We Shall Overcome.” Dad is right behind them, singing and marching, too. Just beyond the camera’s sight.
But where else would he be? He admired and followed Hesburgh, but the priest hadn’t been the one to convert Dad to the movement. I gleaned from letters I’d found in old boxes in an attic and casual references from relatives over the years that Dad had signed on to, and suffered for, the cause at an even earlier age. As a Freedom Rider in high school he’d been beaten and teargassed and thrown in jail. Again, though, he didn’t talk about it. He didn’t talk about it the way a lot of people who experience war don’t talk about it. Some survivors believe that talking about their singular experience dishonors the ones who’d given more, and undermines the reality of collective sacrifice. Dad knew he fought the good fight, but he could escape back into whiteness; his black comrades could not.
“I — we; me and Raison? — we have a choice about all of this, right?”
“I suppose you do,” Ted says, a bit irritated.
“Sebastian, let’s choose to be on the right side of history,” Raison says.
There’s more but eventually the encounter morphs into small talk, and we drift off — Raison and me — as couples do after a late night party. Ted drives us to our front door.
“Sebastian. Raison. Good to see you again, as always,” he says before driving off.
“As always,” echoes Raison.
We find that our house had been “tweaked” just as Ted Gibson said it would be. We have some privacy — thanks to being willing to wear the ankle monitors. They just need to know where we are. They don’t necessarily need to see us. Still, we also know there are some cameras hidden about and our phones are bugged.
“It will only last a short time,” Ted had promised.
Several weeks later, again around midnight, I stand on a hangman’s platform wearing the oversized dunce hat, with a noose around my neck. Trying to field questions, but not sure which ones I should answer and which ones I should just bow my head to because they’re accusations couched as questions. This is being filmed, just as Ted said it would.
The spotlight blinds me, hiding the surrounding audience. I am theater in the round. Catcalls and jeering rain upon me.
“Admit that you have benefitted from white supremacy!”
I admit it.
“Admit that the life you’ve led is a life of crime because you led it on the back of systemic racism!”
“I have benefited from white privilege,” I say. “I contributed to systemic racism.”
“Can’t hear you,” someone calls. But they can. I’m mic’d up.
I yell: “I am guilty!”
“You don’t really believe it, Rush!”
“Guilty! I am guilty!”
Why can’t I convince them?
They chant: “Lynch him! Lynch him! Lynch him!”
Ted told me beforehand how this would go. Swore that I would’t actually be harmed physically but as the audience’s anger mounts, I am smacked on the side of the head by the thrown textbook: We the People. My face goes numb, tears gather. We the People is the beginner’s manual for The Great Reconciliation, the name for this societal shakeup. I nearly go down, but regain equilibrium.
They laugh, then applaud. Then, the chants again.
“Lynch him! Lynch him! Lynch him!”
I am handcuffed, shackled. And though Ted had promised that Raison wouldn’t have to go through this, I wonder if somewhere in the wings she too awaits her turn to be reeducated.
I can’t think about that. I need to detach. Concentrate on something else.
I review the projects I’d been considering taking up — before all this — since leaving the Eagle-Gazette, one of them being a genealogical expedition. Dad always intended to investigate if we can apply for membership in the Descendants of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence. We trace our lineage back to Doctor Benjamin Rush of Philadelphia who, by most accounts, seems to have been a horrible physician who did not embrace the cutting edge treatments of his day (barbaric by modern standards) but instead adhered to the more common methods (basically torture) that were guaranteed to hasten someone’s death.
“Speak, Rush! Say something!”
“I am sorry!” I cry. “Please let me go!”
“We’re just getting started, baby!”
Benjamin Rush’s statue and stature might withstand critical race theory because he’d been way ahead of his time on social issues, not only hating slavery but saying that blacks and whites are equal (something that even Lincoln wouldn’t concede some 80 years later). Another thrown We the People hits me square in the chest.
“I admit my sins!” I yell, making my accusers laugh all the louder.
They again chant: “Lynch him! Lynch him! Lynch him!”
Where’s Ted Gibson? How long must this go on?