Character and Fitness is a semi-autobiographical novel about an unemployed social justice lawyer and his nurse girlfriend living in a shitty apartment complex behind a strip mall in suburban Philadelphia, the birthplace of our democracy. The novel explores the alienation and estrangement that working class, thinking people feel in America. The characters inhabiting this novel are trying to make their lives about something more than simply making money, which makes them strangers in a strange land. This month's installment marks the conclusion of the novel.
I stand outside our bedroom. I need talk to her. I am going back and forth. I am lonely and cut off. I don’t know if what I’m fighting is even real. I feel like I’m guarding an imaginary fort, against an invisible army, for something that doesn’t even want to be defended. I don’t know if what I’m thinking is even what I think; or who is doing the thinking and what it’s really all about? I don’t know if the voices inside my head are even my own voices. Do they come from me or somewhere else? Is it my life or someone else’s? Am I in control? Or am I just a thing being pushed and pulled around? A toy? A puppet? Something in a video game? All of my life I’ve heard people talk about change. Change is a good thing. Change is growth. Change is a part of life. But so is getting worn down. So is getting old. How do you tell the difference between change and losing yourself? How can you tell the difference between growth and giving up? How do you tell the difference between the shape of your own life and the shape of the world around you? Seems like a mighty fine line, if one is even there at all. I wrestle with Zola for a reality check, then go outside to check the mail. It’s not the first cold day of the year. I can’t see my breath in the air. Everything is the same as it’s always been, except muggier for November. Not a season of growth, but frustration and resignation. How much can you take before you make things easier? What’s the point of resistance? How long can you keep struggling when you don’t know what you’re struggling for? I get to the mailbox: J. Jill, Lands End, Hewlett Packard, and a letter from the State Bar Association. I wrote them requesting a deferment of my bar dues, but according to this letter here, they’ve instead chosen to hit me with a disciplinary action and $200 late fee, plus another $175 in fines. The letter states that if I don’t pay within 21 days, then they’ll suspend my license and I’ll have to appear before the ethics committee before I can be reinstated. I don’t even know what to say. You can represent billion dollar insurance companies that screw people at the worst moments of their lives, mortgage lenders that prey on the uneducated, banks that make billions off of economic destruction, advocate torture, lobby against fair play, engage in conflicts of interest, use legal procedure to deny justice and get cases dismissed for companies that dump toxic chemicals in poor neighborhoods: but miss one $150 payment and the ethics board will threaten to ruin your life and throw you out of the bar.
I don’t even know why I get angry anymore. This is not a great morality play. It’s very simple: shut up and send in the check. Or better yet, go to work at Goldstein and Locke and have them take care of it for you. They’ve got it set up so that their attorneys don’t even have to worry about it. The payments automatically come out the firm’s account. In fact, they take care of nearly all of their lawyers’ ethical obligations. They actually buy their lawyers out of their pro bono requirements—pay outside attorneys to fulfill the firm’s duty to contribute to society. It’s beautiful: once I’m in at G&L, I’ll never have to think about other people again.
I climb over the fence and walk along the dirt path behind Target. Now I’m going to have to ask Rachel to pay my bar dues. Way to go, Neal. You’re doing great. If I was a broke musician living off my girlfriend, then at least that would be something. It’s recognizable. It has certain degree of gritty cache. But what cache does being a broke lawyer have? Zero cachet. Anti-cachet. It’s the worst of possible worlds. All the negative that comes with being a Bohemian—poor, whiny, alienated—but without any of the romance that makes it cool. And then all the negative that comes with being a lawyer—overanalytical, argumentative—but without the paycheck that makes it tolerable. I walk around the big red concrete balls and go in through the automatic doors. People seem happy, well-adjusted, at ease with the world. That young couple over there looking at watches is happy looking at watches. Those two cashiers laughing about something are laughing about something. That woman going through the sale rack is enjoying her shopping. Target isn’t some blinding fluorescent hell for them. It’s not an optionless crucifixion. It’s not some tragedy. In fact, it’s kind of nice: they may find a good deal on something they’ve been looking for, improve their lives a little bit. As I pass through the crock pot section into the George Foreman grill region, it occurs to me that maybe I’ve been spoiled. I’ve never stopped and simply appreciated the fact that being born in America is like hitting the lottery. I could be in the Sudan right now with something really to complain about. This is not to say at least we’re not the Sudan as a way of excusing everything wrong with America. I can’t wreck your car and say at least I didn’t burn your house down as a way of justifying it. There are such things as principles. It’s only that I’ve missed some obvious things here. Seen the syringe on the beach instead of the ocean. And then like all dreamers, stabbed myself with it.
I cut through electronics on my way over to the video games. The bottom line is that I could really use a good friend, but right now I’m happy to settle for a familiar face. “Hey, man.” I say to Joe. “What’s going on?”
“You come down here to get your ass kicked?” he says from the XBOX.
“I think you got that backwards.”
“Yeah, right,” he says. “Who do you want?”
“Let’s do Muhammad Ali,” I say. “Time to change things up a little bit.”
“I thought you liked Frazier?”
“Enough of him,” I say, taking the controller. “Let’s see how the other half lives.”
“If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.”
“You got that right.”
We stand shoulder-to-shoulder in front of the console as the fighters enter the ring, tension between us mounting. I’ve always wanted to buy my own XBOX, but never did because I would enjoy it too much. An hour a day given over to nothing but empty pleasure that could have gone to more valuable and important things. If I get this job at G&L, though, the first thing I’m going to do is buy one of these suckers. I’m going to set up my own little corner in the apartment with my own TV, glass of wine every night, check out. Let the world do whatever it’s going to do. Main thing is I have my fun.
“Let’s do it,” he says.
The bell rings and I can’t believe how much better it is with Ali. I’m moving, I’m jabbing, inflicting damage while keeping myself out of danger. No more having to fight through the blows. “You can’t handle the truth.”
“Smack, smack, and THAWAP!” and nail him with a combination “What’s happening to you, man?”
I can feel him getting frustrated. He’s beaten me every time we’ve played. I was fine to let him have it, but not now. Be it a video game or real life, I’m tired of getting beat down. I dance around the ring, picking him apart. No matter what it is, winning always feels better than losing.
“Boom bamm!” I say. “Oh, shit, man…Are you alright? You might need to go home, boy. Homeboy.” And land another wicked combination before the bell rings.
The break comes and I feel creepy. I normally can’t stand the whole smack talk thing that comes with video games and sports. It’s why I quit playing basketball. I got tired of people yacking at each other all the time. “So, what’s been going on, man?” I ask him in a nicer tone. “Giants have been looking good lately. Seems like they’re getting it together at the right time.”
“Yeah, they’re alright,” he says. “I saw you the other day…”
“Driving,” he says. “You were in a suit.”
“Oh, yeah,” I say as the second round begins. “I must have been on my way up to New York.”
“What are you doing up there?”
I nail him with a jab, then skip away. I don’t even know how I played the other guy. “Job interview.”
“What kind of job?” He lands his first good hook.
“Law firm up there.”
“In New York?”
“Big time!” He lands another hook.
“You trying to distract me?” I ask.
“We’ll see about that….”
We dance around each other, landing punches at a distance. He seems to have figured out something about me. He’s in the fight now.
“So, tell me something,” he says, landing a right hook to the head.
“What?” I ask, coming back with an uppercut.
“How much they pay?” he says, landing a body shot.
“Curious,” he says.
“You should be curious about the fight,” I say, hitting him with a three-punch combination. “You’re getting your ass kicked.”
“Come on,” he says, landing another hook.
“What do you care?”
“I want to know how much you big-time lawyers make.”
“I’m not a big-time lawyer,” I say.
“Okay, well how much do THEY make?”
“A lot,” I say, landing a jab.
“What? Like a hundred thousand?”
“Yeah, around there.”
“Like what around there?” he asks
“Are we playing here?”
“Yeah, we’re playing…playing and talking,” he says.
I hit him with a couple good shots to the body and he comes back with several hooks of his own. I have to remember not to go toe-to-toe with Frazier. You get killed on the inside.
“So, what…” he says
The bell rings for the end of the second round and he turns to me. “Like a 150 thousand?”
I tell myself not to tell him because the guy makes $11 an hour and it’ll hurt him; then I tell myself to tell him because it’s impressive and he’ll be blown away. It’s too much contradiction. Am I a good guy or a bad guy? “You really want to know?”
“Two hundred and thirty five thousand dollars a year.” Where did that extra five come from? It’s 230. What’s that about?
“Well, fuckin’ A! You’re a rich man now. Don’t forget the little people back here in Philly!”
I feel small and petty. I shouldn’t have said anything. I’ve only ever been strong up to a point. The quality only goes so far. “Yeah, well, we’ll see.”
“What? You might not get it?”
The bell for the third round rings and we turn back to the fight.
“No, that’s not it.”
As I dance around him, throwing jabs and getting hit with hooks, I again catch myself thinking contradictory thoughts, but this time less distinct so that I’m not really sure where one starts and the other begins.
“Smack down, bitch,” he says after nailing me
“Yeah…” The first is that I shouldn’t say anything because this isn’t something that he would understand, but then wrapped in and around that is that people can understand a lot more than you give them credit for and that it’s never right to assume. The last thought, which is much more a feeling, is that I just that I need to talk to somebody. I don’t have anybody out here. The old buddy I was expecting to hang out with in New York was incoherently drugged and drunk. I could use a pal. It’s not a sin.
“Well, it’s confusing for me, Joe,” I say. “It’s not the simplest thing.”
“What?” he says, landing more punches.
“This job situation.”
“What’s the problem?”
“I might not take it.”
“I don’t know if I can do it.”
“What do you mean?”
“I don’t know if I believe in the work.”
He drops the controller and turns to me. “Are you fucking retarded?”
“Believe in your work….Nobody fucking believes in their work.”
“Does this piss you off or something?
“Yeah, it pisses me off,” he says. “Why kind of fucking idiot doesn’t take a job that pays 235 thousand fucking dollars a year?”
“No…no…” he says in slightly calmer voice. “I want to hear this. Tell me. I want to hear it.”
“Fine,” I say. “You in a union?”
“Nah, they don’t want them here.”
“Fine, say you tried to start a union and they decided not to pay you, or they fired you, or cut your benefits when you got hurt so that they wouldn’t have to pay your hospital bills… Now, you try and stand up for yourself, but like with your pot charge, you can’t even afford a lawyer. These guys on the other hand…” and motion up to the ceiling and fluorescent lights. “They hire a law firm like the one I interviewed with in New York—and it’s over. You understand: over. You’re done. No matter how right you were and how wrong they were, you lose and they win.”
“Fuck that,” he says. “I don’t want to be in a union.”
“You know what, forget it,” I say. “I knew you couldn’t understand.”
“Forget it,” I say. “I shouldn’t have even said anything.”
“You know what kind of guy you are?”
“What kind of guy am I?”
“You’re the kind of guy who thinks you’re better than everybody else. That’s who you are.”
“Yeah, that’s me.”
“I fought for my country. What the fuck did you ever do?”
“Nothing, hung out. I’m out of here. I’ll see you when I see you.”
“I like to work, you don’t. That’s the difference.”
“Okay, gotcha,” and start to walk away.
“Liberal fucking bullshit….”
“Yeah, I got that,” I say. “I’m going to go back home now.”
“Yeah, go back to your girlfriend…”
I stop and turn around. “What did you just say?”
“I said get out of here, go home.”
“No, man. Think I’ll stay.”
He looks at me and looks away. “If I wasn’t working…”
“Hey, you take off ten minutes every time I come over here, pal,” I say. “You’re not going to get in trouble. All we got to do is walk around out back. It won’t even take that long.”
He doesn’t say anything.
“Guess not, huh? Oh well…You’re welcome for the help I gave you in court. No big deal, my pleasure. Good seeing you, pal. Take care.”
He stands there with his head lowered, staring at the floor, looking like a sad, vulnerable guy who knows that he’s going to spend the rest of his life cleaning up shit on Aisle Five…
I turn around and there’s a 12-year old kid staring at us horrified. I feel like a complete loser and take off through electronics. Waves of regret, total idiocy. I’m worse than the jerks on the bus. What am I doing getting into a fight at Target? What malfunction is going on here? I never should have said anything, kept it to myself. Turning down that kind of money is like pissing on the flag for a guy like that, of course he’s going to get angry about it. It’s the American Dream. People spend their lives chasing it. Now here I am saying that I might not take it. Acting like some spoiled punk—I don’t believe in the work. Money like that means hope to people. They could send their kids to college, buy a house in a decent neighborhood, change their lives. I move past the 75 year old with coke-bottle glasses who I asked about the soy milk—why don’t I ask him about it? Give him the lowdown about how capitalism corrupts the legal system and denies regular people any real access to justice. I’m sure he’d love to hear all about it. Give him the whole spiel about the working classes and how we’re all being imprisoned by corrupt structures and institutions. And lest we forget, the corporate oligarchy! Hell, it’s probably why he’s working here now! But it doesn’t matter! It’s a great country. The system works. I’m a creep. End of story. And at least we’re not the Sudan.
I go through the automatic doors and nearly plow through an entire family. I need to calm down, pull it back together. I shouldn’t have done that. It was a mistake. I know what he’s up against. I should be stronger. I’m in control. It’s my life. It’s been my life since the day I sat on the curb. I decided it then. I wouldn’t let them beat me down. I wouldn’t let them define me. I wouldn’t let myself become just another boat getting tossed around in the storm. I would think my own thoughts. I would live my own life. I would try and face the truth. But a fog has settled in. The light is dimming. The way back home isn’t clear. We’ve gotten lost. As I stand here in the middle of my apartment complex, behind the Target, next to the dumpster, I realize that I just don’t know if America is worth fighting for anymore.
But either way, I live here, this is where I live: Am I worth fighting for anymore? Are you worth fighting for anymore? Are we worth fighting for anymore? Is that the same question? If so, who owns it? Whose property is it? I slowly walk back up the stairs to the apartment. She’s still asleep, so I go into the closet and check out the Brooks Brothers website. Hey, I always wanted to get that sport coat...Now I can buy 20 of them. I can be the guy that I always wanted to be seen as, but just not the guy that I wanted to be. I guess that’s the trade off. Not real integrity, but the veneer of integrity. Smoke and mirrors. Haze. Not who we are, but who we’re supposed to be. When the inside is fading, put up a façade. Or a strip mall.
“How’s your anguish, sweety?” I turn around. Rachel is standing behind me in a red shirt and black skirt. I love when I can see the front muscle of her thigh and the bone in her kneecaps. It settles me down. Reminds me of what’s important: sex.
“I know you, Nealy,” she says with a smile. “You’re spinning out of your own mind right now. What’s it all for? What’s it all about? Who am I? You’re back on the highway, boy. You’ve got to make it Albuquerque!”
“You’ve got sort of a detached view of things…”
“No, I’m just in the diner waiting for you,” she says. “I’ve got a booth and good coffee. We’re going to sit there and watch the cars go by on the highway.”
“What am I protesting this time?”
“Same thing as always,” she says. “Yourself.”
We talked for a few minutes on the cell phone on the road after I left Tom’s, barely enough time to share my surprise at his downward spiral. But then a cop pulled up behind me and I had to get off. By the time I got home she had already left for work, so I killed the night with four hours of TV and several large whiskeys while looking up quotes about freedom and rebellion. I was looking for some kind of inspiration, but they came off about as deep as the rah rah of a cheerleading squad during a pep rally in a small high school in New Jersey. No one has ever said anything profound enough to get Sallie Mae off your back. When it comes to the real moments, you’re on your own. I ended up crashing on the couch in my boxers, which must have made a nice sight as she walked through the door this morning. And with regard to recent events at Target, I’ve decided not to tell her about them for least two years. Not because I’m embarrassed, but because all credibility would be lost. And I am, of course, embarrassed. What am I going to say? Hey, I’m doing great, things are good, feeling solid about the G&L thing, but oh yeah, I almost just got in a fist fight by the XBOX in Target a few minutes ago…This a Jewish woman we’re talking about here, Freudian analysis would only be the starting point. It would be perceived as my acting out in some kind of existential way against the compromise of my core values and beliefs. Taking the job would be out of the question.
“I’m being Zen about it,” I say. “Just waiting for them to get back. Letting it come.”
“Like the Dalai Lama,” she says.
“How’d you sleep?”
“I slept GREAT,” she says. “I got a ride back from the nurse with the blind Pomeranian, walked in the door, went into the bedroom, fell asleep and woke up five minutes ago. One of the best sleeps that I’ve had in a long time. I almost feel refreshed.”
“Are you taunting me?” I say.
“Yeah, a little bit,” she says. “But I actually thought of something last night at work...”
“It’s not us, you know? There’s nothing wrong with how we think. There’s nothing wrong with questioning things, talking about Camus at the bus stop and living how we want to live.”
“Then why does it feel wrong?”
“Because it has to,” she says. “They can’t exactly pass a law against not going along with the plan, so they just have to find ways to make you feel bad about it. You know that, lawyer boy…By the way, I knew you’d kick ass in the interview. You always do.”
“I didn’t think you’d bring it up.” I left her a message, seemed like the best way to go.
“Why wouldn’t I bring it up? My Albuquerque boy goes toe-to-toe with the East Coast establishment,” she says. “Brings back a win for the team. We’re proud of you, Nealy.”
“Can I ask you a question?”
“Did you suffer at the hands of class consciousness?”
“Oh, fuck you. You should see the views from up there.”
“Well, yeah,” she says. “I imagine that they’re beautiful, probably like the women up there, too, right? The more damage you do to the world, the better views you get of it.”
“Well, you’ve just got all the answers today.”
“I don’t have any answers and don’t tell me that I have the answers,” she says with a suddenly hard edge. “You think that I like living here, Neal? You don’t think that I want to go back to New York? You don’t think that I miss my friends? You don’t think that I’m worried about how I’m going to end up? You’re not alone, okay? Mark it down. Write it on a little note if you have to.”
“I know. I’m sorry.”
“You’re not the only person here,” she says. “I’ve got all the same doubts and questions as you do, okay?”
“I know,” I say. “I’m sorry.”
She shakes her head at herself in frustration. “I didn’t mean to snap on you,” she says. “I’m sorry. I wanted to be strong...”
“Don’t even think about it,” I say. “I’m a self-absorbed prick.”
“Yeah, but you’re my self-absorbed prick,” she says. “Come with me to Target. I need to buy some new shoes for work.”
I can’t help but laugh at myself. It’s the hallmark of the minor leaguer to think that he can escape the consequences of his actions. One way or the other, the world catches up to you. I’m tied into it. The man said it in the Letter From Birmingham Jail: We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality. We’re all crazy balls bouncing off each other. Everything is connected. I could make up a lie and say no, but going would give me a chance to make peace with Joe. Try and make it right. Plus the women’s shoe section is on the opposite end from the video games, so I may not even run into him. “Okay, yeah, let’s go.”
We walk down the stairs and cross the parking lot. Back and forth. Push and pull, a boat getting knocked around at sea. I am half-waiting for her to launch into another speech or diatribe, but she now seems distant. I should reach out to her, but the award-winningly cheap part of me almost finds it annoying that she has an interior life apart from me at times like this…My phone rings. I pull it out and it’s my mother again. I put it on vibrate and put it back in my pocket. I know that I’m being a bad son, but I just can’t deal with it until I know where we stand.
“Who was it?”
“You should have answered,” she says. “You need to talk to her and I need red chile to make enchiladas.”
“I send her emails all the time,” I say.
“It’s not the same,” she says. “She’s a cool woman.”
“I promise to call her tomorrow.”
We go through the automatic doors and the first thing I see, of course, is Joe. He’s a few aisles away with his back turned to me. I feel myself start to move toward him, but then stop and just continue on. I’m not up to it. I’m not the better man. I’m not strong. All of my thinking is really just a cover for a lack of integrity. A lack of honesty. A lack of having the courage to look at myself in the mirror. I know my thoughts. I know who I am. I’m the guy who leaves the lights on, but bitches about the environment. At worst a low-grade fraud, at best a minor-league dreamer. It’s time to face the truth. There’s nothing behind the veneer. After all is said and done, I am as fake as this strip mall. Or just as real. “Can I seriously ask you something?” I say as we get to the women’s shoe section.
“But for real,” I say. “I’m not looking for compliments or anything…I just really want to know.”
“Okay, what is it?”
“At the end of the day, I’m just an average guy, aren’t I? I’m not a bad guy. I’ve had some good moments here and there, but really when it comes down to it, I’m a pretty average guy. Tell me. Truthfully. I can take it. There’s nothing special about me…”
“No, there’s not,” she says, finding the size eights and pulling down her trademark Ramones-style black high tops. “But nice try.”
“What do you mean, nice try?”
“There’s nothing special about anyone, Neal. There are no inherently good guys. What makes them good is what they do. The one truly lame move in this life is to limit what you can be by telling yourself how average you are.”
“Well, excuse me.”
She turns with dark eyes boring into me. “I didn’t mean to snap on you before, but now I mean every word that comes out of my mouth…I told myself that I wouldn’t say anything, because I have faith in you, and this is a decision that you need to make on your own…But let me tell you what can’t happen. You can’t start pretending like your life isn’t a choice, because I can’t be with a helpless man, okay? I can’t be with one of those little men who act like their life is somehow out of their control. One of those men who blame everything on having to make a living or say that they never got the chance to be who they were supposed to be. Fuck that, Neal, I won’t do it…”
“I want you in my life,” she says. “But I don’t need you in my life.”
“That’s a harsh thing to say.”
“Take it for what it is,” she says. “If I lose respect for you, then I lose respect for me. And I can’t let that happen. If you want to be a fucking investment banker, fine. But own it.”
She sits down and sort of kicks the shoe box. One of the black high tops falls out and its fabric flops over to the side—a wilted punk rock dream. I can see her mind working, the gears spinning, a refusal to give into something. She gets herself together, sighs, then looks up at me. “I didn’t mean to say that, I’m sorry,” she says. “I mean, I did mean the part about you being a helpless little prick—I can’t deal with that—but the part about needing you, well, you know I need you. Can I be honest?”
“I’m scared that if you take this job, it’ll ruin us. And I’m scared that if you don’t take this job, it’ll ruin us,” she says, becoming quiet. “If you do take it, I’m afraid that we’ll grow apart and we won’t make it. And if you don’t take it, it would be because of me. And then you’ll resent me. And it’ll be my fault. And I’m not strong enough for it to be my fault. I’m not strong enough to try and talk you out of it, that’s the truth, Neal. I don’t want you to take it, but I don’t want to take responsibility for you not taking it. That’s what I’m afraid to own, and I know how weak that is of me…”
“You’re not weak, Rachel,” I say to her. “We’re a team. Nothing is just your responsibility. Nothing is just my responsibility. We’re together in this…We’re a team.”
She reaches up, grabs me by the shirt, and pulls me down to her for a kiss. It’s an honest one. A raw one. A real one. We pull apart from each other after a few seconds, a little embarrassed, but somehow I don’t think we’re the only couple who’s ever had an argument and then made out in Target. That said, I might be the only guy who’s almost gotten in two fights in the same one in the same day.
“I like those shoes,” I say.”
“Yeah, they’re cool,” she says.
I feel the cell phone vibrate in my pocket. I pull it out and look at the number: a 212 area code. I recognize it immediately as the human resources department at Goldstein and Locke. They wouldn’t be calling me the day after the interview unless it was to offer the position. I stare at it for a little longer—feeling so many different things—then put it back away.
She gives me a quick look as though about to say one thing, but then says something else. “So, I was thinking about Tom.”
“I’m going to ask around the hospital, see if anyone knows of a decent rehab for low- income, or no-income, people.”
“That would be great…”
She gets her shoes and we get in line at the cashier. Part of me wants to tell her, but my mind is back to being all over the place and think it’s better to wait until we get back to the apartment. The one thing I’m clear on is that once I’ve worked at Goldstein and Locke, then I could not go back to a public defender or a legal aid office. I’m still honest enough with myself to know that. I’m not going to go from making 230 thousand dollars in a Park Avenue office with a gym, café and panoramic views of Manhattan to making 39 thousand again in a dingy cube where the water cooler doesn’t work and there’s no toilet paper in the bathroom. I could lie to myself, say that it’s possible, but it’s not going to happen. People always say that they’re going to go get rich, then return to the front lines, but outside of maybe the Person of the Year on CNN, I’ve never seen anyone actually do it. From the mortgage to the car payment to retirement to simply getting used to an affluent lifestyle: once people start making that kind of money, they really can’t afford to stop.
We squeeze our way through a crowd of shoppers and start walking back toward the apartment, weaving around those big red Target concrete balls. I’ve never been able to figure out what these weird things are for, but chances are they’ll be the one thing that the aliens find in the rubble after we’re gone. They’ll use them to figure out all sorts of strange theories about us, but the one thing that they’ll fail to see is that there were real people here who actually had lives. That all around these big red Target concrete balls were creatures who thought about things, talked, argued, struggled, almost got in fist fights and did the best they could in a world that felt stacked against them from day one. It wasn’t just a wasteland, aliens. There was life here, as heavy and complex as any that you’ve ever known.
“Hey, isn’t that Nancy?”
I look out across the parking lot. She’s there next to her car, across the street from the basketball court. “Yeah, but let’s go back to the apartment,” I say. “We need to talk.”
“No, let’s go say hi first,” she says, and starts walking over.
I follow her across the parking lot, squeezing between cars, trucks and minivans. Nancy starts to get into her car and Rachel yells out: “NAWWWNCY! NAWWWNCY!!” We both laugh because she sounds like Sid Vicious from Sid and Nancy. “NAWWWNCY!” She looks up, sees us and smiles. She usually gives off this intense energy that you can feel from 50 feet away, but it’s not there. Something feels wrong.
“We saw you over here,” Rachel says as we reach the car.
“Hey, how’s it going?” she says.
Rachel studies her for a moment. “You alright, girly?”
“Yeah, I’m okay,” she says.
The cars whoosh by on the highway. Whither goest thou? “Come on,” I say, leaning up against her car. “I don’t know much, but I do know that when a woman says she’s okay, she’s not okay.”
“Took you long enough,” says Rachel.
A large truck pulls into the parking lot, lighting the twilight sky. I have the feeling of being back at the Travel Center, everything dreamy and disconnected.
“It’s just stupid,” Nancy says. “I planned this thing and it fell apart. Happens all the time. I rent a truck, people don’t show up. We plan a meeting a month ahead and one person comes. I’m sooo sick of it. What’s the point? It’s like either you have to do things alone or they don’t happen and then over here at work people are always making fun of me,” she says. “It’s just like, why do it? I’m sorry, I know I’m being a wimp…But it’s just been a really shitty day.”
Rachel says some nice things to her. So do I. It’s comical how you can be so screwed up and clueless inside, but still be willing to pretend like you know something about life.
“Thanks, guys,” she says.
“So what are you doing now?” asks Rachel.
“I’m just going to go back to my apartment, watch TV, eat popcorn,” she says, holding up a little bag of it.
“Sometimes that’s the best thing you can do,” I say.
“But what about your thing?” asks Rachel.
“No, it’s off now,” says Nancy.
“But what was it?” asks Rachel.
“I organized a protest against war profiteers,” she says. “You can never even get close to them, but they’re having a fundraiser tonight at this really posh country club. We’ve been planning it for a month and everyone was supposed to meet here at Starbucks because it’s on the way, but no one even showed up. I had coffee out, platter of food, just stupid…How can people say that they’re so against something, but then not want to do anything about it?”
“Is it Fierling?” asks Rachel
“Yes,” Nancy says. “The Fierling Investment Group…They’ve made billions off of sending people to go die.”
“Yeah, those guys are in the douchebag hall of fame,” Rachel says.
“Yeah,” Nancy sighs. “They’re having a $5,000 dollar a plate fundraiser for some douchebag running for Congress.”
“Well, this absolutely still has to happen,” says Rachel.
“But I’m not brave enough to do it alone…”
“But you’re not alone, girl! You’ve got Seldom Seen Neal de la Vega over here!”
“What?” I ask. “There’s no Monkey Wrench Gang going on here.”
“Come on, this is right up your alley, Nealy boy! This could be the caper of the year…Caper of the century! And you know what they say…A man is defined by all these sorts of things, but really, a man is defined by his capers…”
I lean over to her and whisper: “But I was going to watch TV tonight…”
She leans over so that her face is only a few inches away, eyes reflecting the passing headlights “But it’s a caper, Neal. A real caper…” And repeats it like some sort of mantra. “A caper…A caper…”
Goddamnit, she’s right: it is one hell of a caper. A man who turns his back on a caper like this could face all sorts of metaphysical consequences. But still, of ALL the nights for heavy caperology to come along. I just need to get myself together, chill…Not keep pushing it out there.
“But I don’t want to put you on the spot,” says Nancy.
“Well, to be…”
Rachel whispers: “You have to do this, Neal…For a lot of reasons.”
I look at her for a moment…There are times when you’ve simply got to trust your woman. “Okay…”
“So, great!” she says, already starting to walk away. “Now you guys get out there and protest something like good Americans. I have to work tonight or I’d be with you in two seconds. I’m going to go back into Target now, I, uh, forgot to buy soy milk…Oh, and Neal, we’ll talk about that phone call tomorrow after I wake up…” She gets about 10 feet away, then turns around: “Oh yeah, take Zola…”
“She’s named for the writer of the disenfranchised and dispossessed, Neal. You don’t think she wants to protest?”
“No, she’s not. She’s named for New Orleans.”
“So she has nothing to be angry about?”
“Yeah, I can see your point on that one.”
“You’re going up against the forces of darkness and I’d feel better if you had her protection,” she says. “Now go kick some ass. Call me later, I love you, bye.”
Nancy and I stand alone at the far end of the parking lot. She pauses for a moment, then turns to me excitedly: “It’s going to make you sick, Neal. It’s like war is the best thing that ever happened to these people. This asshole Fierling was at the Pentagon, and then he went to KRB…” I walk around the car and get in on the passenger side. “Then hooked up with Bill Brecht from Wachtel, and I’ll tell you about him in a second…” We drive down a short access road that leads to the back of the apartment complex. “And so while lying us into war and simultaneously using their connections to get no-bid contracts that were a 1,000 percent higher than they would have been…”
“Nancy, just one second…I have to run in and get Zola.”
“Oh, no problem!”
I get out and jog over to the concrete stairs, sit down on the first step a few feet away from the dumpster…I pause for a second, just catching my breath…It’s been kind of a weird day…I take out my cell and listen to the message:
Yes, Neal, this is Anamaria from Goldstein and Locke. Hope this finds you well. I am pleased to inform you that the partners have decided to extend you an offer to join our firm. Your qualifications impressed everyone. Please call me at your earliest convenience…
Well, I did it. I got a job. I almost doubted that I would ever get a phone call like that again. It almost seemed like my chance had permanently passed me by. There were times in that closet when I thought that I was done. Cooked. Over. But I did it. Good job, Neal. You made it through a hard stretch. I’m proud of you. Now, what to do…I walk up the stairs, open the door and yell for Zola who bolts past me like she already knows what’s going on. I go inside and grab her leash and a sweatshirt from the bedroom. For a brief moment, I am seriously tempted to just stay in for the night, figure things out with a couple glasses of wine and a few hours in front of the TV. But I can’t do it to Nancy. I might not be a guy who leads people anywhere, but I’m not going to be a guy who takes away from them, either. Not yet, anyway. One last caper.
By the time I get back to her car, Zola is already in the back seat, staring forward, ready for her mission. “Neal de la Vega,” Nancy says with a big smile. “I knew from the first time we talked that we would end up doing something like this together.”
“You got any music in this outfit?”
“Do I have any music? Just hit play.”
I push the button. Unbelievable…Her tiny little junker fills with the opening country-punk chords of Corona by the Minutemen. One of my favorite tunes of all time.
“Rachel turned me onto them,” she says over the music. “I always thought it was just the theme song from that stupid show Jackass on MTV.”
“Lot of people think that.”
“Context is meaning,” she says, sounding jazzed up and more like herself again. “Take a song out of the anti-establishment context and throw it into the commercial mainstream and it comes out meaning something that it was never supposed to mean.”
“Well, it’s like they go on a detour,” I say. “Sometimes they make it back to what they were supposed to stand for, sometimes they don’t…” And why is it that whenever you’re in one of these crossroad moments, every conversation, song and stupid TV commercial seems like it has something to do with what’s going on in your life? It’s like with 9:11. Every time I look at the clock now, it’s 9:11. I never even noticed 9:11, before 9/11. And no in the name of god, no! I would never for one moment even dare intimate that this is my own personal 9-11. Only truly patriotic Americans, like war profiteers, are allowed to use that for their own purposes. We pull off the side road and out onto the highway…
The people will survive
In their environment
The dirt, scarcity and the emptiness…
“So, Bill Brecht,” she says. “HUGE lawyer for Wachtel…It’s so sick and twisted that it’s almost funny, but of course not really because it’s a nightmare…They build factories in these countries…Lie and say that the factories are being used to make weapons to kill us…Fear, War, Bombs, Death, The Usual….And then they charge us to rebuild the factories after we bomb the factories that they said were being used to make bombs to bomb us, been doing it since World War I…”
As we drive down the highway and Nancy breaks down the truly terrible history of American war profiteering from since 1915, I begin to see myself working at Goldstein and Locke. I can picture standing in front of the mirror in the morning, straightening my tie, putting on my blue sport coat, heading out of the door of our apartment on Tompkins Square. I can see myself getting into a cab instead of taking the subway because I have money, getting out in front of the building, feeling the power and the glory of working on Park Avenue, going through the lobby past the high-tech security, taking that elevator up to the 34th floor where the first thing I would do every morning is go into the café, have my coffee and sit with a newspaper from Europe. And it would be wonderful. And I would feel successful. And people would talk about how great I was doing. But outside of those things—if there is an outside of those things—what would be the meaning of my being there? What would be the point? Or is being successful and making money simply the point? It’s back to the question of meaning versus happiness, which is a fundamentally impossible question to ask in America because in America to say that I am happy and successful and making a lot of money is to say that my life has meaning. It’s a common sense statement. Only a moron would even question it. Accordingly, the only way that you could even question it would be to argue that the essential understandings of happiness and meaning as they exist in America today are wrong. And being that America has exported its essential understandings to most of the world would then be to argue that three or four billion people are living in an existentially unsustainable illusion. In other words, the totality of Western Civilization as it has come to be expressed in the capitalist societies of the First World who culturally and economically dominate the planet, have missed the target when it comes to the fundamental concept of human meaning, happiness, and the general understanding of how a person ought to live…Well, now we’re getting somewhere. Now we’re rolling up our sleeves and getting down to biz. We’re not only talking about songs going for a little detour, or a couple of moody hipsters in a shitty apartment, but the whole of human history currently being on a lost highway from which there may be no coming back. Yeah, that’s real good, Neal. Way to keep it simple. As long as you don’t make these things overly complex, you’ll be just fine. The answers will make themselves clear.
“What are you thinking about over there, Neal de la Vega?”
“Pull in over here and let’s get some red wine.”
“Right on,” she says, pulling into a parking space. “I knew protesting with you would fun.”
“If I can’t dance,” I say.
“Then I don’t want to be part of your revolution!” she says.
She pulls in and I get out of the car. Night has snuck up on us. So has the cold. There is definitely a whiff of winter in the air. Everything has happened in such a rush, that I’ve missed out on the fact that that we’ve ascended through several socioeconomic layers and landed at a boutique shopping mall. Funny, boutique interests. I walk across a cobblestone courtyard with a dribbling fountain and soft jazz flowing out through ivy-hidden speakers and pass through two large wooden doors into a wine store. Winter chalet, circa 1938: hardwood floors, high ceilings, wood beams, deer antlers and a large oil portrait of someone, maybe the owner, hanging above the fireplace. A tall blonde woman comes over and asks me if I need any help. I politely decline, but I am evidently a suspicious character as she begins to trail after me. I move over to the sale rack to try and get away from her, but she keeps up her spying from the German Rieslings. I’m about to ask her if there’s a problem, when a handsome winner in a designer suit carrying an obviously important briefcase comes into the store. She immediately runs over to him and starts to flirt, the chance of a scoring a successful mate outweighing all national security concerns along with merchandise retention, if that’s what they call it. I pick out a bottle from a Pennsylvania winery on sale for four dollars, pay for it at the cash register, steal a wine opener out of general principle and go back outside.
“Pull around back here so we can open this thing.”
“Right on, man.”
Zola rests her head on my shoulder.
We drive around to a parking space near the loading dock—cardboard boxes, plastic and trash strewn all around—same as behind the Target. Another façade in a land of facades. I open the wine, take a BIG swig and pass her the bottle. “It’s pretty good,” I say, remembering something from several years back. “Hey, you want to hear a funny story?”
“I’ve never been able to afford it, but I’ve always had this thing for good whiskey,” I say. “I’m your classic poor man with expensive tastes…” She hands me the wine. I take a swig and pass it back. “Anyway, about five years ago, I was at our old liquor store in New York about to buy our usual stuff when I saw asale sign on the top shelf under this really famous single malt. I had always heard about this McJenkins or whatever, so just couldn’t believe that it was only $29.99. It was like the liquor store gods were all smiling down on me. Finally, it was my time. I whipped out the credit card, took it up to the register and proudly presented my superstar whiskey. I remember the cashiers were all impressed, smiling, treating me like an important man. Even the guy behind me was sort of nodding his head and giving me the eye of respect. It was totally awesome. I felt like a sophisticated cat….Anyway, I took it home, made this big deal about it to Rachel, amped it out like a once-in-a-life time event. I think I even made us drink water first to cleanse the palette and all that. Gave a speech. But then, of course, as these things go, it sucked. It had no life. It tasted bland. They had taken all the whiskey out of the whiskey. But whatever, take a shot, learn a lesson…So, a week later I go back to the liquor store to get our regular stuff and nearly frickin’ die….I had totally misread the sign. It wasn’t $29.99, but $299.99…”
“Oh man!” she says laughing. “Well, that at least explains why everyone was treating you with respect!”
“Yeah, I thought it was about me, something special that I knew…” She hands me the bottle and I take a swig. “But it was all about the money. It’s funny, I always thought that someday I might splurge on an expensive bottle of whiskey, see how the other half lives, but I finally get there only to find that I liked what we were drinking all along...”
Rachel is a crafty bitch. She knew that the vibe of this caper would stir the soul, get me to reflect on things in a hard and honest way. New thoughts and changes in perspective need time to breathe. It’s like sending an alcoholic into an open bar the day he decides to get sober. It’s manipulative. She’s sabotaging my recovery from my anti-establishment addiction. I need to talk with someone who will straighten me out. Keep me strong. I pull out my phone to call my mother. A hard dose of mom-reality is what I need. She’ll appreciate both sides, while seeing things from a financially responsible point of view. I tell Nancy that I’m going to make a quick phone call, give Zola a quick chin scratch, then get out and walk over to the loading dock. I pop up on it with my feet dangling, hit speed dial and she picks up on the first ring.
“Why haven’t you called me?”
It’s good to hear her voice. “I’m sorry, mom, but things have been crazy around here lately.”
“I’ve been calling you!”
“I know, I’m sorry.”
“What’s wrong with you, boy?”
“I don’t know, okay…But I have to tell you something…”
“Oh my god, you got a job!”
“Yes, I got a job.”
“Ahhhh, I knew it! I lit a candle for you!”
“It’s with this really prestigious law firm in New York…Amazing pay, incredible benefits, great office in Manhattan…”
“Oh my god! I can’t believe it! I’m so excited for you guys! You’ve worked so hard, mi jito! I knew everything would work out. I’m so proud of you.”
“So, tell me about what you’ll be doing…”
I watch a plastic bag blow across the parking lot and get stuck in a bush. “It’s like corporate law, but mixed up with criminal defense like I’ve always done.”
“Oh, that’s incredible, honey. So you’ll be like…Well, like, well, helping poor businesses that get in trouble or something? Huh…I’m sure it’s because I don’t know much about the law, but I’m having a hard time picturing this one...Explain it to me, Neal.”
“Yeah, it’s really complicated,” I say. “But I’ll be making a lot of money. More money than I’ve ever made…”
“You know, Neal, that’s a word you’ve never used before…You’ve always told me about your work—and some of it really was complicated—but you never used that word before to describe it. For you, it was always very simple.”
“Well, it’s not so simple anymore.”
“Well, tell me what it is then.”
“It’s work that pays a lot of money.”
“What kind of work pays a lot of money?”
“Not really work that helps people.”
“Then who does it help?”
“What kind of corporations?”
“The really big ones.”
“And what do you do for them?” she asks.
“Like defend them when they break they law,” I say.
There’s a long pause. “Neal…”
“Have you seen the Michael Moore movies?”
“Yes, I’ve seen the Michael Moore movies.”
“Well, I don’t think I raised my son to be one of the bad guys in the Michael Moore movies.”
“But aren’t you about to get laid off?”
“Y que? So what? Your last name is Neal de la VEGA…Not Neal de las CORPORACIONES! I think we need to talk about this…”
“I can’t right now.”
“Why, what are you doing?”
“Considering what I just told you,” I say. “You wouldn’t believe it.”
“Where’s Rachel? What did Rachel say about this?”
“She’s fine…We’re working it out. But I’ve really got to go…”
“Your grandfather crossed a river to come to this country.”
“I know he crossed the river, okay!”
“And what did they call him?”
“They called him a wetback.”
“A mojado, Neal. A mojado.”
“I got it, mom. It’s very sad, a story of tragedy and triumph, but I’ve really got to go.”
“I want you and Rachel to move back to New Mexico,” she says. “The people need you here.”
“Mom, I’ve got to go.”
“The Texans are stealing our water.”
“Okay, I’ll look into it. I love you.”
“I want you to call me more so we can talk.”
“Okay, I will. I love you.”
“I love you, too, mi jito. I know that in the end, you’ll do what’s right.”
Okay, I will, I love…OH WAIT!”
“See, you always need your mother.”
“Can you mail me some chile from New Mexico? Rachel wants to make enchiladas.”
“Green or red?”
“Hot or super hot?”
“Hot…The super hot burns me out.”
“I know, it’s too much.”
“I love you, mom.”
“I love you, too.”
I should have known better...The woman kept a photo of Joan Baez next to a portrait of La Virgen de Guadalupe on the kitchen wall. For my 21st birthday, she sent me a book about Frida Kahlo and a ristra for my place in Harlem. Two things that you don’t mess around with when it comes to Latinos: chile and beliefs. Probably in that order. I put my phone away, walk back over the car. “Sorry about that...”
“I just wanted to say something…”
“I just want to say how much this means to me,” she says. “So many people talk the talk, but you walk the walk. You’re the real deal. Both you and Rachel.”
“You guys inspire me.”
“Well, it probably looks a lot better from the outside than it does sometimes from the inside, but I appreciate it, Nancy. And I know Rachel would, too.” I take the bottle off the floor, uncork it with my teeth and take a very, very big swig of wine. “But you’ve got your own thing going. You’re holding down your own fort. So, how does this work? What are we doing?”
“Nothing major,” she says. “Penetrating the insularity. Letting them know that they’re not getting away with it, even though they really are. I have posters and flyers in the trunk. There’s like this club-within-a-club at this country club. We can picket outside there, maybe find Fierling, Brecht or one of the other sociopathic neo-oligarchs and personally give them a flyer.”
“How’d you find out about this?”
“My brother’s a stockbroker in New York,” she says. “He let me know. You ready?”
I look back at Zola. “Let’s go.”
We drive down a wooded two-lane highway for several miles, then turn down a narrow winding road past lawns that look like national parks and beautiful homes with creeks running alongside them. It’s a stunning view. She slows down and parks at the far end of what almost looks like a small ivy league college. Everything is perfect and well lit. You could literally sit in the grass under a tree at night and read a book. I think back to how sections of New Orleans would be pitch black at night, entire neighborhoods without electricity for more than two years after the storm. I used to ride my bike back and forth to the office every day. I took a detour one night on my way home and ended up lost in the depths of the Ninth Ward. There were teenage boys selling dope in the middle of the intersection, children wandering the streets, the infrastructure of everything completely broken down. I’ll never forget passing by this house with no door and seeing an old woman sitting alone in her yellow night gown on the wooden floor. She was staring at a candle.
Nancy gets out of the car and I look back at Zola. She found us in New Orleans with a broken paw and an infection in her eyes. “You had to come, didn’t you, girl?”
She puts her paw on my forearm: Of course I did, Neal…First Katrina, now that oil spill…The writing’s on the wall, brother. We’ve got to make a change.
“Yeah, we do, don’t we…”
You bring any water?
“No, I forgot.”
Rachel would have brought water…
“Yeah, I know…” I put her leash on and we go outside.
“It got cold,” says Nancy, coming around from the trunk with posters and a handful of flyers. One poster reads: Your Money Is Soaked In Blood. The other poster is an American flag, but where the stars usually are, there are 50 corporate logos. The flyers show the connections between executives at Fierling Investment, the U.S. government, Wall Street and other corporate allies—a way of saying to them, I guess, that people know what’s going on.
She crosses her tattooed arms to keep herself warm. I take my sweatshirt off and give it to her.
“But what about you?”
“If I feel cold,” I say, “then I won’t feel nervous.”
“You feel nervous?”
“Yeah,” I say. “This stuff ain’t easy.”
“I know,” she says, putting the sweater on. “I feel nauseous right now.”
“Me, too,” I say, petting Zola. “When you protest, you’re not just going up against the thing you’re protesting, but all the quiet that’s out there. And there’s a lot of quiet.”
“Can I ask you something?” she says.
“Sure,” I say.
“Why did Rachel mean by caper?”
“Oh, that’s funny,” I say. “It’s a long story that has to do with something I did a long time ago. I’ll tell you about it over a beer some time…But for now what I think it means, honestly, are the things that we do that come from the honest part of ourselves. The work of the soul, some might say. Yeah, the work of the soul…Now are you ready to go commit civil disobedience, young lady?”
“That’s right, Neal…You were reading Thoreau in Starbucks when we met!”
“What’s that line you pointed out to me?” I ask her.
“Let your life be a counter friction to stop the machine…” she says.
“Now that’s a good one,” I say. “That one kind of gets in there.”
“I should have thought of that today,” she says. “Instead of acting like a baby.”
“You weren’t acting like a baby,” I say.
“I was upset,” she says.
“I never asked you, Nancy, but how old are you?”
“Twenty-three,” she says.
“Well, take this for what it is, okay? It’s something that’s helped me, so however you can, use it.”
“Okay, Neal” she says, listening closely.
“It’s good to be wrong,” I say. “It means you’re thinking. It means you’re aware of yourself. It means you’re holding yourself up to a higher standard. Nothing we do is ever 100 percent right. Only assholes think they’re right. Now let’s go.”
We walk past stone buildings with security shields and motion detector lights that switch on one after the other. I catch our reflection in a large bay window. Tiny Nancy in my extra large sweatshirt, Zola Catahoula and me: three ain’t righters shambling in the darkness. I think to myself that if Rachel could see us now, she would be very proud. I also think that she would laugh her ass off, like the Wicked Witch of The West staring down at Dorothy and the gang in that crystal ball.
“I think it’s over this way,” she says.
We get to a pathway lined with little American flags and with what back in New Mexico we would call luminarios, but seriously doubt that they’re calling them that here. As we get closer, I can hear something like a muzak version of The Eagles’ Take It To The Limit One More Time, which I’m guessing is the candidate’s kick-ass theme song. I begin to steel myself for the act of protest—the first moments are like diving into ice water—when we come around a bend and I see what only can be described as a phalanx of security guards. We both look at each other, quickly turn around and start walking back the other way, so that we end up hiding behind a big tree, about 25 feet away from the security guards, with the club-within-the-country-club glowing in the background. I can hear laughter, conversation and the clinking glasses of a cocktail party. We sit down on the ground, backs against the tree, Zola lying between us.
“We have right to protest, right?”
“No, Nancy,” I say. “It’s private property and there’s no First Amendment right on private property. It’s why they have these things here and not at restaurants in town. The second they see us, they can have us arrested for trespass.”
“Neal,” she says with a devastatingly sincere look in her eyes. “I am willing to get arrested. I hate war profiteers.”
“I know, Nancy,” I say, peering around the tree. “But they’ve got the entire front area covered. And if you’re going to throw yourself on the gears of the machine, girl, then you’ve got to make it count…Maybe there’s a way around back.”
We take a wide berth around the building, moving through a cluster of trees and past a small pond, the lighting from the party casting an unnatural haze over everything. I can see a golf course through the woods and beyond that an affluent neighborhood. The entire place feels oppressive. Even the leaves on the ground look like somebody’s idea of what leaves on the ground are supposed to look like. After all the meanderings, I’ve finally found a place that I’m not supposed to like, that I really don’t like. As we get toward the back of the building, we come across a guy in either a busboy or dishwasher uniform, smoking either a cigarette or a joint. I can feel him studying us and begin to worry about what he might do…
“Watchale por la chota, hombre.”
“Orale,” I say back.
“What did he say?” Nancy asks me
“Watch out for the cops,” I say.
We carefully approach the back of the building. I’m expecting more security and readying myself to hide behind another tree, but there’s nothing but overflowing trash cans, an emergency exit and a small window that’s unusually high up on the wall. There’s no way in, no real access, no way to get to them. It’s a shut out. They have the power. They have the control. I start to feel foolish. These people rule the world. They’re not going to let a couple of weirdoes and a dog ruin their dinner. A voice inside my head says to forget about it and go home, which is where you should be anyway. You’re almost 40-years old. You have credit card bills and student loans to worry about. You should be focused on real life, not out here quoting Thoreau. Stop and turn around before it’s too late. You’re smart, take the other road. If it were a losing fight, then that would be one thing, but most of the time there’s no fight at all. It’s coming to a club-within-a-country-club and being shut out by security as war profiteers get away with murder. It’s an exercise in irrelevance. Let’s be real: the good fight has never been what you thought it was going to be anyway. It’s insomnia. It’s jealousy. It’s too much coffee and bags under your eyes. And the only wisdom that you’ve ever gotten from it is the knowledge that you’re as screwed up and responsible for all the hell in the world as your worst enemies both real and imagined. The only difference is that they have houses, nice cars, good jobs and you don’t. Tonight has been a gift. Times change, people change, just not the way we want them to. I’ve done my time. I tried my best. But this game was over before I was born.
I am about to tell Nancy that it’s not happening when I notice the light coming from inside the small window. I picture the magical evening that they’re having in there, warm and ensconced, toasting to their success, electing another one of their puppets as they dance on the world grave. Good. Let them. Maybe it’s time to get nihilistic about. Or Nealistic about it. Flush it down the toilet. Screw people. Laugh all the way to the bank as they’re going down. Watch them tear each other’s eyes out from a penthouse. Make fun of all the idiots as they buy into the lie. Picture them standing there with their heads hanging down, wounded and vulnerable, wondering how they got reduced into being just a jerk who has to clean up shit on Aisle Five…
That’s the question, isn’t it? Boiled down to the hardcore fundamentals: how much do I care about Joe? The people inside could care less. As long as they make their money, it doesn’t matter to them whether he lives or dies. They used him up for something that wasn’t even real. Treated him like garbage. But me? How much do I really care? He wouldn’t even want me out here right now. He would call me an asshole. The war profiteers inside would be the good guys, Nancy and I would be the unpatriotic creeps. That’s how twisted around things are. That’s how much the lie has taken hold. But outside of all the philosophical considerations, talk of systems, us versus them, you versus me, lies, laws, history, struggle, class consciousness, capitalism, identity, alienation, sense of self, lost, found, living, dying, right here, right now how much do I care about my fellow man? That’s it. All else is gloss. All else gets in the way. The question of whether I care is at the heart of everything. It is the soul of who we are. And like all questions of heart and soul, it can only be answered by our actions. I see it now. I see it clearly. I am the fort that I’m defending, I am are the army that I’m up against, and I am the damned fool who doesn’t even know that he needs to be defended.
“What do you think, Zola. Should we do this one for Joe?”
Now you’re looking in the mirror, Neal.
I walk back about 15 feet to where the ground slopes up to see if I can see anything through the window. There’s a gold chandelier hanging from a white and gold ceiling. I jump up and see the top of a waiter’s head. From the way Zola is pulling me, I’m guessing that it’s the dining room. Good job, girl.
Every so often in life you find yourself in a position where if you don’t do it, then it won’t get done. If you don’t take that legal case, then the case won’t be brought. If you don’t help that kid, then the kid won’t get helped. If you don’t create that work of art, then it won’t exist. And if you don’t speak truth to power, then power will keep on eating dinner at the country club.
I start walking back over to Nancy, but she’s already thinking the same thing. “How long do you think we have?” she asks.
I notice that she’s been strategically placing some of the flyers around for the country clubbers to find later. I get a sudden feeling about her. This girl is going to make some noise some day, give these people a run for their money. “10 to 15 seconds max,” I say.
“And then we need to get off this property...”
“Alright,” she says, surveying the landscape. “Those security guards are going to be coming around the back fast, so we’ve got to go for that neighborhood right there, then loop the long way back to the car. It’s going from one zone of control and exclusivity to another, but like you said, at least we’ll have the First Amendment back on our side.”
We walk back to the back wall. I wrap Zola’s leash around my wrist and kneel down. Nancy climbs up on my shoulders and we stand back up. After more than eight months of nearly nothing happening, today I got a job that pays almost a quarter million dollars, almost got in a fight in Target, and am now engaged in an act of protest that would make even Abbie Hoffman wonder what the hell was going on.
“Which one?” she says.
I crane my neck up to see her. “What?”
I envision them all sitting there having dinner in their club-within-a-country-club, discussing their investments and thinking themselves safely insulated from the riff raff and all our petty concerns, when they look up in the window and see YOUR MONEY IS SOAKED IN BLOOD. It would definitely put a crimp in my dinner.
“Soaked in blood,” I say. “All the way, but hold on…” I see a bottle of ketchup in the trash can, reach over and grab it. “Go big or stay home,” I say, handing it up her. “Hit that sucker up with some blood.”
“Right on, man,” she says, dumping some in her hand and smearing it on the poster.
“You ready?” I ask.
“Let’s do it,” she says.
I walk over to the window with Nancy on my shoulders and the leash in my hand. Zola smiles up at me. We are all connected.
“Okay, on the count of three,” she says.
I hear her bang on the window, then tilt my head up and see her holding the bloody poster against it. It almost fills the whole thing, save for a small part on the side where she can see in. I picture them in their tuxedos and gowns: gawking, hopefully retching, dropping their forks on their plates, knocking over their champagne and wondering how in the hell some weird girl with long brown hair made it through the phalanx of security and punctured their insulated lives. “They’re all looking over here!” she yells out. “They all can see it! They all can see it! They’re calling for security! Let’s go! Let’s go!”
I take off running with Nancy still on my back…It’s a rush of freedom, a fresh gasp of liberty. A mini-rebellion of momentary glory wild enough to set the soul free. The high that comes from hell-raising and fighting for your castles in the sky. Defending the imaginary fort! The spirit of resistance that connects the dreamers, sings the underdog, rocks the cradle and lights the fires of the night. The poetry of praying with your feet, the art of taking action on belief. A place in the heart still beyond controlled acceptance and acceptance of control.
We get to the sidewalk and I put Nancy down.
“You didn’t have to carry me!”
“Oh, you’re so tiny I barely even noticed you.”
“You should have seen their faces, Neal.”
“I could see them in my head,” I say.
“We got to them, Neal. They won’t forget this dinner!”
“We did,” I say. “We sure did.”
She throws her arms around me in a big hug. It’s both sad and good how one day you wake up and find yourself in a different role. You’re still as mixed up as you ever were, save for that you care about other people in a way that makes you not want to disappoint them. Shoot for 100 percent integrity and if you make it up to 40, then you’re doing okay. Funny: here was a man with 40 percent integrity. The other 60 percent was bullshit, but that 40 percent was something to see.
We start walking down the new block, same as the old block. Three subversive cowboys in the suburban canyonlands of isolation. Outside of the fact that war profiteering is a nightmare, I’m feeling pretty happy with myself. Pulling off a caper like that at 39 is a badge of honor. The act of sprinting itself is something of which to be proud. I’m already outlining the story in my head for Rachel, taking up my own personal heroism a couple notches, working in the metaphor about how Nancy had to get up on my shoulders, when out of the corner of my eye I notice her shaking her head at what she sees as the obscene wealth around her.
“It rules everything,” she says. “It radiates out of here.”
“All of these massive houses…They all look like fear.”
“Yeah, you said something like that before.”
“It’s weird, man. In the place where people have the most options—they’ve stopped making choices about how to live.”
“I don’t know, Nancy.” A motion detector light comes on. “Not that I’m down with it or anything, but seems to me like this is their choice. They’ve made it.”
“No,” she says, shaking her head. “These people are educated, they know what’s going on…But instead of facing it, they’ve cut themselves off.”
“Again, not defending, but maybe that’s their choice.”
“But fear isn’t a choice.”
“Fear is a reaction.”
“Asking yourself how to live,” she says, passing by a real estate plaque. “Because if these people really asked themselves how to live, then they straight up wouldn’t live like this…All that these big houses look like to me, are nothing but a reaction to the fact that life is bigger than we are. And you know what makes it even worse?”
“So many people want to be them.”
“The American Dream?”
We walk in silence back toward the car, long shadows blending with the night. The initial buzz from the action has worn off and like the come down from any high has left me feeling worn. It’s been a long day and in light of what must be done, I know the night will be even longer.
“You think we’ll be alright?”
“We as in you and me?” I ask. “Or we as in everyone?”
“It’s the same thing, right?”
“Yeah,” I sigh. “It is.”
Why be a man, when you can be a success?—Bertolt Brecht
No one ever sees the real acts of protest. They are within you, the world we keep inside ourselves. The motivations that live behind the things we do. The honesty of our actions, the sincerity of our thoughts. The lies that we won’t take part in, the fear that we won’t accept. The wrongs that we recognize, the weakness that we won’t indulge. The struggle to keep thinking, when laziness is everywhere. The refusal to close down, when an open heart is a broken heart. The passions that make us who we are, the dreams that we hold on to, the fire that we keep alive.
I stare at the letter on the computer screen. I hit send, and it’s over. The Tompkins Square apartment, Park Avenue, everything. We don’t move. We stay right where we are: the credit card bills, the student loan debt, no money in the bank and worst of all this shitty apartment. That’s the one that gets me. That we could be gone right now, driving our U-Haul up the turnpike toward the Manhattan skyline, the strip mall in our rear view mirror, all of this seeming like nothing but a detour. A bump in the road on our way back from a national tragedy. But there is no way back. Something in us has changed. I see my finger go toward the keyboard…Last chance. I say yes and everything is different. By this time next week we’re walking along Central Park on our way to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. By this time next month we‘re throwing a housewarming party, showing off our new rug. And what about the view from 34th floor? Won’t I regret not seeing that at sunset, those oranges and reds enveloping the sky?
Yes, every day for the rest of my life.
And won’t I regret not making that kind of money?
Yes, twice a day for the rest of my life.
I wait for the anti-establishment music to come, but there is none. I listen for some Beethoven to fill the air, maybe Ode To Joy, but all I hear is a truck clang over one of the speed bumps outside in the parking lot. I hit the send button and move on with my life. That’s it. Maybe a little rush of defiance. A fleeting sense of accomplishment that doesn’t really endure. But the act did happen. You can’t take that away. No matter what.
I quickly check my email, hoping that the universe will reward me for what I’ve done, but unless spam for cheap Viagra is karmic compensation, then it looks like my ship has sailed. I go to a job board. Everything is on the table now. Rachel can get a job anywhere, so wherever I can get a job is where we have to go. There are legal aid positions in Oklahoma, Nevada and New Mexico. I take a couple minutes to write a short cover letter to the ancestral homeland, stressing my commitment to mi tierra, even though I’ve spent my entire adult life running from it. I send it off with my resume and start to check out a listserv, but decide that that’s enough for the day. If Sallie Mae wants to bring the hammer down this afternoon, then let it. I can hear Rachel up now making her coffee. I take a minute to get it together, making sure that I’m not about to take something weird out on her and turn off the computer.
“I want to hear all about the protest,” she says. “Just want to get my coffee first, it was crazy last night.”
“Okay,” I say, sitting down at the table under the Goya. Zola comes over to me and I rub the top of her head.
“So okay,” she says, coming over to the table with her coffee and sitting down. “Tell me the whole story start to finish. Everything from the beginning…”
Her black hair is sticking up on one side from the bed. I reach over and smooth it down.
“Do I look terrible?” she asks.
“No, baby,” I say. “You look fine.”
“So, tell me,” she says. “I was thinking about you all last night. I was dying to call, but never had a chance to stop.”
“Was work pretty hard?”
“So sad,” she says. “This boy drowned…But I don’t want to talk about it. I want to hear about the protest.”
“Well,” I sigh.”There’s something else first.”
“What is it?”
“I just wrote that law firm in New York,” I say. “I didn’t take the job.”
“Oh, sweetheart,” she says. “I love you so much.” She gets up, comes over and hugs me, her head resting on my shoulder. “I love you so much…I am so proud of you.”
“I’m scared,” I say to her. “I don’t know if anything like this is ever going to come around again.”
She grabs hold of my hand. “We’re going to be fine, baby. Something good will come along, I promise you.”
“I don’t know…What if it’s a mistake…”
“No matter what happens, it’s not a mistake. So much in this world is shit, Neal, but you’ve stood for something good today. You’re a good man, baby. You’re my fucking hero.”
“I don’t know what we’re going to do about the money and the credit card bills…”
“We’re going to be okay,” she says. “We’ll keep going, we’ll figure out a way to do it, we’ll live in a tent if we have to…”
“Zola will like that.”
“Zola will love it,” she says. “We’ll cook beans, make a fire every night, you can tell me stories, it’ll be great…” She leans forward to me. “Whatever it takes, Neal, we’re going to find a way to live our own lives.”
I hang my head and sigh. I feel a headache behind my eyes and have to work hard to keep from crying. “Real tough for a social justice guy, huh…”
“There are no social justice guys, baby. There’re just guys who choose to do what’s right. And I’ve got one of them.”
“Are you okay?”
She goes quiet for a moment, listening to herself, thinking about her life and the struggle ahead. “No,” she says. “Not even close. But come here.”
We come into each other’s arms in the quiet of our hearts. Two souls burning in the home of one another, warm against the sorrow of the cold. We share a life between our eyes, promises with our bodies, and go forward together in a land that is our own. Our hands clasped in one strength, moving through the shadows, fire rising faster against the darkness of the night. No ending but creation. No sadness only passion. The raw and wild spirit of a new world waiting to be born.
“I love you.”
“I love you, too.”