A Good American
an excerpt from a novel by Jennie Litt
First I should probably tell you about Shari. Shari was the first Art Co-op kid who lived with us. She was originally from Pittsburgh, but she ran away when she was sixteen to be a hippie. She was hitchhiking with her crap packed in her cello case when a klesmer band picked her up on their way to an orthodox wedding in Cleveland. They dropped her at Coventry Village, where she crashed with some speed freaks until their pad was busted one afternoon when she was baby-sitting for me at the Art Co-op, which was the community center Mom ran in the ground floor of our house. After that Shari just stayed with us.
Shari was almost like having a big sister. I wanted to be exactly like her when I was a teenager. When she wasn't burning incense and writing poetry by candlelight in her bedroom,
she would play Chutes and Ladders and Go Fish and Barbies with me, and she used to paint tiny flowers and butterflies on my cheek and let me braid her hair. One time she made an entire Indian village in the sandbox at the playground, with teepees and a Pez dispenser totem pole and an extinguished campfire of crumbled-up bark and cigarette ash inside a circle of pebbles.
It was a big deal the first time Shari brought Ira to the Art Co-op for dinner. Even I had heard of him: he edited The Finger, the freekommunity's underground newspaper (I used to like coloring in "The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers" comic strip that came in each issue). Ira was about ten years older than Shari and pretty cute: big and thick, with sort of clown-wiggish brown hair and muttonchop sideburns. When we were all sitting around talking after dinner, Ira gave everyone a business card (I still have mine):
Member, Intergalactic Brotherhood of Diggers
c/o The Finger
104 University House
E. 107 and Euclid
Cleveland, OH 44106
Protest is Art * Art is Protest
"Why only subversive? Why not revolutionary?" Mom asked, after reading the card. "That
paper of yours purports to have a revolutionary mission."
Ira nodded. "It does purport that."
"But?" mom prompted him.
Ira reached for his wine but it was empty, so he drank Shari's instead. Finally, he looked back at Mom. "How does it work, revolution?" he said. "I don't mean theoretically, I know
that: you've got your revolutionaries poised to strike; you've got your government in a shambles, the armed forces break down, and then pow, revolution! But I never bought that classical model. What's a classical model of revolution, anyway? It's an oxymoron. Anyway, my ass has always advocated nonviolence. My model revolution isn't the exchange of one government for another; it's in your head. I mean, doesn't a mass change of consciousness necessarily precede revolutionary action? And isn't it logical that if enough people change their consciousness at once, revolution will naturally follow? In my model, the final transfer of power is just a formality, and then we all live happily ever after in one enormous freekommunity without borders. That's why I started The Finger, to change consciousness."
"That's why we read it, man," someone said.
"You're spreading the groovy word. That's so important, baby." Shari stroked one of Ira's
"But this just proves my point!" Ira kind of yelled. "Shar, listen: when I started The Finger, I thought all I had to do in order to bring about our local chapter of the
revolution was to write really persuasive copy. But The Finger isn't changing anyone's
consciousness. Who reads The Finger? Your ass and your ass and your ass and your ass and your ass!" He was pointing at everyone at the table. "Everyone's ass who reads The Finger agrees with me already!"
"As a result of which you feel you can't fairly claim revolutionary status," Mom suggested.
"Well--not as a freak newspaper editor, anyway," Ira said.
It was my job that night to wash the dishes, and Shari was signed up to dry. We usually had
fun, singing songs together or she'd give me a soap beard or we'd have a water fight. But this night Ira was hanging around, so Shari paid attention only to him. He was sitting on the counter next to the dish drainer, pulling cards randomly from this deck he had and then making Shari try to guess what card he'd pulled.
"Six of diamonds?" she'd say.
"No, baby, now concentrate. You got the right color, anyway. Try again."
"Uh," she'd try again, "jack of hearts?"
"Hey, that's it! Your ass is psychic, babe. Okay, now you pick."
I had to stand on a stool to even reach the sink. They were completely ignoring me. Shari
chose a card, then placed it face down on the counter.
Ira said, "You thinking hard, now?" Shari nodded. He stared up at the ceiling. "Ace ... of ... clubs. It is, isn't it? I felt a, a thing, a telepathy ray pass between us. I'm right, right?"
"It was the nine of hearts," Shari said.
"Damn it, Shar, you gotta try harder! How the hell else are we going to communicate when they throw our asses in separate jail cells?"
My stomach went cold suddenly. "Shari?" I said, "Are you going to jail?" I really thought she was going to jail.
Shari turned to me and winked. "Ira's just kidding, Nova honey."
"My ass," Ira said.
Ira wasn't kidding, either--at least not about himself. He went to jail a bunch of
times that I remember. It was almost like a hobby for him. He was proud of it. I'm not sure if it meant he was a revolutionary or not, though.
The Finger cost a quarter, and a lot of freaks made money selling it-- they got to keep a dime or something for every paper they sold. (A dime was actual money back then.)
Once Ira moved The Finger office into the Art Co-op, the freak news vendors used to come around every Thursday, the day The Finger came out, to pick up a stack of papers and hand in their receipts and money from the week before. But every week lots of papers were given away for free, either because whoever was buying couldn't afford to pay, or because Ira had gone out in the dead of night and opened all the newspaper boxes in the neighborhood--the ones that you put a quarter in and the front opens like an oven door and you take out your paper--and replaced all the Plain Dealers and Cleveland Presses with the latest issue of The Finger. Then he spent the next day riding the Rapid, hawking the straight papers for profit. One time, though, he got arrested for selling papers without a permit. On the morning of his court date, he stripped down to his underwear in Mom's bedroom, and Shari
daubed him all over, including his hair and sideburns, with some sort of green make-up, and Mom helped him into one of her bras and a nightie; he also wore a cardboard tiara and carried a Lava lamp for a torch, trailing the cord behind him as he walked into the court room. And that's how he went to court, dressed as the Statue of Liberty. It was supposed to represent
freedom of the press. I don't think it helped his case much, because he got a fine and a night in the pokey. He was totally into being sent to jail, though. He wrote a big article about it in the next issue of The Finger.
I guess because Mom wasn't going to charge him any rent, Ira moved The Finger office from near Case Western Reserve University to the Art Co-op. It was a small office off the big
studio which was originally supposed to be Mom's office but she always just used her bedroom. I kind of resented him being there at first, not because of him--he was very likable--but because with him around, Shari acted like I didn't even exist.
Ira was more like Shari's religion than her boyfriend.
All she ever did was follow him around and make him coffee and type for him and do his laundry, and you just knew that the fact that he let her suck his dick made her life. Soon she wasn't even living with us anymore. She was always staying over at Ira's apartment, which was in Little Italy and smelled of doughnuts because it was over a doughnut store.
The way I picture Ira is sitting with his feet on his desk and his elbow on the light-table, smoking one of those short, lumpy cigarettes he rolled, and all around him on the desk and floor just junk, newspapers and clipping-packets from the Liberation News Service and sheets of that press-on type, and curling-up wallposters thumb-tacked everywhere, arguing with Mom in his New York accent. He and Mom had a lot in common because his parents were Communists,
too. Mom was always writing articles for The Finger with titles like "Notes on the Operation of a Small Co-operative." Ira wrote a column called "Pig Shit" that was syndicated to a bunch of other underground papers through the Liberation News Service, all about the latest shitty things the pigs had done, I mean the cops. The rest of The Finger staff were these four or five guys with guyish names like Steve who I could never tell apart.
This is my favorite Ira memory. One time, he called a press conference to announce that the freekommunity was seceding from the city of Cleveland Heights. He had a big neighborhood map propped against an easel on which the five-block area that was seceding had been filled in with colorful paisley designs, and its new name printed underneath: Freek Nation. Freek Nation, he told the press, would have no laws, except that everyone should do their own thing. Also it would have no money; all resources would be distributed equally. This last
announcement really shook up the Coventry Village store-owners, who didn't realize that Freek Nation was just theatre. The local news showed them triple-padlocking their shops, as well as the hardware store guy renting an attack dog. Some sort of straight-looking friend of Ira's who was planted in the audience asked him who was going to be in charge of Freek Nation. That was my cue to enter, wearing a little sari and bells around my ankles and flowers. Ira said, "Ladies and gentlemen, it is my honor and privilege to introduce our chief executive, President Nova of Freek Nation!" I just waved and didn't say anything because I was deaf and dumb, supposedly. Of course, the straight press was appalled that the freaks had co-opted a six-year-old child for their subversive ends, but I can't even tell you how special I felt to be included in the grownups' joke. Ira always called me President Nova of Freek Nation after that.
There were so many runaways in those days that I used to think running away was something everyone did when they reached a certain age, like learning to drive. It seemed there was always some runaway turning up at the Art Co-op looking for a place to crash. If we had room, Mom would let them crash with us; otherwise, the freaks always knew of some crashpad that hadn't gotten busted yet. (Crashpads always got busted eventually, because of drugs or weird sex episodes or the landlord would get cited by the Health Department.) One night while we were at dinner, after Ira had been publishing The Finger out of the Art Co-op for at least a year, the monitor on duty came upstairs to tell us that some runaway chick had shown up and was asking for Ira. "She says her name is Sky-High Di," the monitor said and Bob the muffin boy whipped his one-hitter out of his back pocket and shouted, "Send 'er up!", and everyone cracked up, even me, though I didn't understand what was funny. Then everyone seemed surprised when Ira came back upstairs with this Hawaiian-looking chick decked out like a character from M*A*S*H* in army fatigues and combat boots, carrying a military duffel bag.
She wouldn't take any food or wine, just a cup of black coffee. Of course Mom wanted to know what her story was, but, instead of spitting it out, Di sort of nodded at me with this agonized look. What had I done? I instantly disliked her.
Mom said, "We don't have secrets in this house, Di," but Sky-High Di just clammed up till finally Ira asked me if I would mind leaving. I stomped out, and Di closed the sun-porch doors behind me.
I was so mad. If she needed privacy that bad, why didn't she just talk to Ira alone in The Finger office? And what made her single me out as the person who had to leave? I wasn't a cop; I wasn't a lawyer. And it couldn't be because I was a kid: "Children are only newer people," Mom always said. So I squatted outside the sun-porch and eavesdropped, but I couldn't make out what Di was saying too well.
Di stayed with us that night, and the next day Ira had this very serious talk with me about
how if any strange grownups approached me, say on the playground, I was supposed to not talk to them, and especially not answer any questions about Sky-High Di, who from now on we would call Louise. No one ever did ask me about her, although I used to have fantasies of myself climbing around on the jungle gym while fielding questions from strange grownups: "Sky-High
Di? Sure I know where she is. She lives with us. You're supposed to call her Louise." God, I hated her.
Di was the first person I ever hated. I felt very conflicted about hating her, too, because the freaks always said that it was beautiful to love everybody, even bad people like Nixon, and mostly I did. And since I was in training to be the most turned-on freak of all time, I wondered, shouldn't I make it a point to try and love her despite the fact that I hated her? I couldn't get past it, though.
It seemed as soon as Di showed up, the whole Art Co-op started revolving around her. There were two camps, one for and one against her. Mostly Ira and the Steves were for her. Everyone else, practically, was against her, even Mom who was usually cool with everyone no matter how wacked out or hostile they were. But even though Mom was letting her crash at our house and eat our food and everything, Di acted like Mom was a tyrannical teacher who was making her stay after school for something she didn't do. She was always calling Mom "H.D.," which was this mean joke that nobody even got until Bob the muffin boy happened to take a book out of the library one day with a poem in it by H.D. H.D. was this lesbian poet from the thirties whose real name was Hilda Doolittle. Hilda do little. How obscure is that? Di went to college at Barnard.
I remember Ira one night at dinner (Sky-High Di wasn't there) smacking his hand on the table and shouting, "I'm ashamed of my ass -- what a two-bit revolutionary I am compared to her. Freek Nation, what was that? The revolutionary equivalent of calling a stranger on the phone to ask if their refrigerator's running."
Mom's partner Jackie said, "But darling, you said yourself you're not a revolutionary. And may I ask whatever happened to 'protest is art--art is protest'?"
"Fuck that," Ira said.
"The Panthers were recruiting at the Euclid Arcade again today," Hiram, Mom's lawyer, said helpfully. "Do yourself up like the Statue of Liberty again, they won't know what color you are."
"I thought The Finger is committed to disseminating the nonviolent revolution," Mom remarked. She was quoting The Finger manifesto which went on the masthead of every issue.
Ira shrugged and sang, "But when you talk about destruction, don't you know that you can count me out--in." In his normal voice he said, "Just ask Louise. That sister isn't farting around disseminating."
"She's a violence freak," drawled Bob the muffin boy (he always sounded stoned). "She's on a heavy death trip. You need to watch your ass with her. You fool with the death culture, you're a dead fool, my brother." And he flipped his long blond hair over his shoulders with both hands. Bob belonged to a commune called Rock Court that was housed in two white frame buildings in the woods behind our parking lot. He was the muffin boy because his job was
baking muffins at the Food Conspiracy.
"Right on, Bob," Shari murmured.
It wasn’t long before I got revenge on Sky-High Di. It was almost the end of the school year, and the alternative learning community I went to school at was making a year book. Each kid could design a page about themselves (if they wanted to), with (or without) a photograph. One weekend morning, I got up early to do my yearbook page. I wanted to use Prestype for the lettering, since I didn't have too great handwriting. The Prestype was in The Finger office.
I got dressed, went downstairs to the Art Co-op--we never opened before noon--and pushed open the door to The Finger office. And there were Ira and Sky-High Di going at it on Ira's desk! I can still see Di, her naked legs tan and muscular, her long brown hair spread across her face, and one truly spectacular tit poking out of her General Patton shirt; as for Ira, he was standing with his back to me, pretty much dressed except that his jeans were halfway down
his thighs, exposing his hairy ass. Di gasped, "Didn't anyone ever teach that brat to knock?" Deliberately not shutting the door behind me, I turned and ran upstairs yelling, "Mom!" Boy, I was thinking, is she ever in trouble!
Mom was surprisingly furious. She'd been typing and drinking coffee in her room. She always gets up around five in the morning. She came pounding downstairs in her orchid-patterned
kimono and flip-flops, and then stood panting, her hands on her hips, in The Finger office doorway.
"I told you when you first showed up, Louise, this is not your personal hotel! You're a guest in a private home with a seven-year-old child, for God's sake!"
Ira had pulled his pants up and was sort of skulking in the corner, but Sky-High Di was standing face to face with Mom with her shirt unbuttoned and her tits falling out of her bra, holding her panties as if she were about to step into them but not stepping into them. She had thick, black, glossy pubic hair.
"Well, if it isn't H.D.," Di said. "My God, we were only balling. Sex is a natural, beautiful thing, lady, or hadn't you heard?"
"It's not the balling I object to. Ball all you like, Louise. I know this may be difficult for you to understand, but I'm not interested in whether or not you're balling, or who you're
balling. I'm not even interested in where you're balling, unless you're balling at the Art Co-op."
"Well, I am, so I guess you are interested after all," Di said.
Mom took a deep breath. "This is a community center, Louise. When you break the rules, you're not simply, uh--" Mom trailed off. Di was nonchalantly poking her tits back into her bra.
"Being an asshole?" Ira suggested, trying not very effectively to pat down his messy hair.
He was obviously embarrassed. He wasn't looking at Di.
"Engaging in anti-social behavior," Mom said carefully; "you're also jeopardizing the Art Co-op's very existence. We depend on grants. They'll be revoked the instant the outside world perceives the Art Co-op to be some orgiastic drug cult, and we're on thin ice as it is."
Di rolled her eyes, then started pulling on her panties. "Those grants are nothing but pig money. I claim it in the name of the revolution." Then she said over her shoulder to Ira, "Comrade, did I or did I not tell you the woman is a pig?"
"Louise," Mom said, in her neutral-social-worker voice, "I need for you to go."
"Where's she supposed to go?" Ira yelled, suddenly. "Have some sympathy, Hilda. My god, she's running from the pigs!"
"Sorry, that's not my problem!" Mom exploded. Then she grabbed my hand and started dragging me upstairs.
"Peace," Di sneered, behind us.
So Ira took Di back to his apartment, and Shari moved back in with us.
I was excited to have Shari back again, but it wasn't the same. She didn't want to go to the playground or make god's-eyes with me or listen while I read Ramona the Pest aloud. She wanted to sleep, cry, and throw up, that was it. Di didn't come around hardly at all, but Ira came every day because of The Finger. If Shari was home, she'd hide in her bedroom and peek through the closed curtain until she saw him leave, or else she'd make an ostentatious exit and spend the rest of the day at Rock Court.
I didn't know how to act toward Ira. I knew I was supposed to be mad at him like Mom and Shari were, but even though he was living with Di, who I hated, I wasn't really mad at him. I felt guilty, actually, whenever I saw him sneaking all sheepish around the Art Co-op like
he'd been impeached or something. So one day I knocked (just in case) on the door of The Finger office when he was there.
When he said to come in and I did, he smiled so sweetly at me and said, "Hiya, President Nova. I was just coming to look for your ass. I need a favor only you can grant."
How could you be mad at someone who made you feel so special? I said, "Lay it on me, my brother."
"I've had the phone service cut off to the apartment," he said.
"In case The Man is listening."
"What man?" I asked.
"The G-man -- Big Brother -- J. Edgar Hoover. I need to make some calls at the phone booth outside Bead Here Now, and I need an inconspicuous lookout. Will you make this contribution to the revolution, comrade?"
I muttered, "Only if you stop talking like Sky-High Di."
We went outside to the phone booth. I pretended to be window-shopping at Bead Here Now, but I was really watching to make sure there weren't any undercover FBI agents hanging around the phone booth recording Ira's half of the conversation on their top-secret breast-pocket tape recorders, or leaning out of some second-story window taking furtive snapshots of him with the camera devices in their James Bond wristwatches.
Then, maybe a week later, those kids were killed at Kent State, which was the biggest thing to hit Coventry Village since, I don't know, acid, I guess. Even the Rock Courtiers, who despised all news as a matter of principle, deigned to watch TV with us that day. Ira had a black and white TV in The Finger office which he lugged to the Community Speakout area so everyone could watch: him, me, Mom, Jackie, Gordon, Hiram, the Rock Courtiers starring Bob the muffin boy, Shari, the Steves, Di, and a bunch of poor freaks who couldn't afford TVs. You would have thought the TV was broadcasting the presence of God, everyone was so solemn and silent--except for Di, Ira, and the Steves, who kept making each other giggle by whispering, "This little piggy had roast beef!" or "Some pig!" or "Th-th-th-that's all, folks!" Everyone was pretty annoyed by them, but no one would say anything, mostly because everyone was giving them the silent treatment. The group of them was so obnoxious, though, that finally Shari swung around to face Di and sobbed, "Shame on you! Four people give their lives for your revolution, and all you can do is make jokes? You make me sick!" And she ran out of the big studio into the unisex bathroom and threw up, just to prove it. Bob the muffin boy wandered out after her. Ira got this look on his face like he was trying to swallow something big and spiky. But Di just snorted, tossed her hair back, and barked, "Come on, Volunteers," and swaggered out, followed by the Steves. Ira got up and followed too, only slower. "Put the TV back when you're done, someone, will you?" he said wistfully, then split.
Jennie Litt's work has appeared in Indiana Review, The Sun: A Magazine of Ideas, Speak, and Fireweed. When Jennie isn't writing, she caters fancy dinner parties for rich people. She lives in Brooklyn.
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