A Good American, Part 2
by Jennie Litt
But he came back the next morning. For some reason, I didn't go to school that day. I was sitting on the floor of the big studio with Shari, Mom, and Bob the muffin boy, painting a banner we later strung across the front of the building (it said, "How Many Deaths Will It Take, Amerika?"), when Ira leaped onto the loading dock and walked in through the sliding
door, which was open because it was nice weather. Instantly, Mom pressed her lips together and started concentrating very hard on painting; Shari threw her brush down and was halfway up the stairs before Ira blurted, "Shari, would you please not go?"
Shari froze on the stairs, but didn't turn around.
"Look," he continued quickly, "we acted pretty tacky yesterday, and I want to apologize for that, but that's not why I came. I mean, it is, but it's not the only reason. I wanted to--see you again. Dig the banner, by the way. Shari, Hilda, I miss your asses, please stop acting like I killed you. I don't know what else to say. Please."
Shari had turned on the stairs. "You wanted to see me again?" she breathed, looking all wide-eyed and Goldie-Hawnish.
"Yes, I wanted to see you again. I feel like my ass is in exile over there in Little Italy. Look, I know why you're pissed off, I don't blame you for being pissed off, you should be pissed off--"
"We are pissed off," Mom said.
Ira suddenly beamed. "Hey, Hilda, you talked to me!"
"Bob," Shari whispered. Bob, who'd been quietly painting this whole time, looked up. Shari nodded slightly toward the open door to the loading dock. Bob sort of shrugged, dunked his brush into the paint, stood up and meandered (that was hurrying for Bob) out onto the loading dock and disappeared. Ira automatically followed with his eyes as Bob went past, the way your eyes automatically follow the movements of a fly. Shari began descending the stairs, but so slow and smooth it looked like she was floating.
Ira went on, "What I wanted to say was, even though you're pissed off, can you put it aside for today--just for today, I swear, you can be pissed off again tomorrow--and come with
me to a demo which is supposed to start around noon in University Circle? You can bring the President, Hil, it's supposed to be peaceful."
We all looked at Mom, who seemed to be having trouble getting the "k" of "Amerika" the way she wanted it. Finally, Mom looked up and said, "I'd like to go to that demonstration; one of your newsboys came by earlier and told us the details. But frankly, Ira, I'm much too angry at you right now to just put it aside, and for no reason except that you're feeling lonely and ignored. Those are the consequences of your abusing your privileges here and betraying my trust. I'm sorry, but that's how I feel. I can't speak for Shari, of course."
Shari didn't say anything, she just stood at the foot of the stairs and gazed adoringly at
Ira across the room.
Ira dropped to his knees next to where Mom was sitting. "I dig that I'm persona non grata here, I really do. I dig that you can't even stand the sight of my ass. Maybe next week some time I'll come over and you can all lay a guilt rap on me, make me feel like a piece of newspaper the dog shit on. I got it coming to my ass. But Hilda, today? Could you even just pretend not to be mad at me? I'll cry if you say no, sister, and that's no idle threat." And I could see that Ira was crying, just a little, though he tried to hide it by messing with his hair.
"I'll go," Shari said. Ira looked up. Then he got up and went over to her and they started smooching. I was jealous, so I went over to them and kept saying, "I'll go too, I'll go too," even though usually I hated going to demonstrations, until Ira let go of Shari with one arm so he could include me in their hug. I can still remember how it felt, my face smushed against his hip, a rivet from his jeans pressing into my cheek, the damp, clothy warmth that radiated from between his legs.
"Ira." Mom cleared her throat, and we all looked over at her. She was still kneeling by the banner. "I'll also go, because I can see this is important to you for some reason. And since Nova wants to go, obviously, I don't have much choice. But don't expect me to act like everything's the way it used to be."
Ira shrugged. "It's not, so why expect it?"
I always wore the same outfit to demonstrations: long-sleeved sweatshirt, jeans, boots, and a kid-sized Cleveland Indians batting helmet. In one pocket I'd carry a wet washcloth in a sandwich baggie and a surgical mask for if there was gas; in another I had dimes for calling
Jackie or Hiram or my grandparents in Beachwood in case I got lost. Mom would write their numbers on the back of my hand before we left the house. But I never got lost because--here's why I hated going to demonstrations--Mom also made me wear this harness thing that had a leash attached to it, that Mom held the other end of. Every time I had to go out in public in
that thing, I couldn't look anyone in the eye. But Mom and I always stayed about half a mile from where any action was anyway, because Mom thought it was too dangerous.
The four of us walked down the hill past the cemetery and through Little Italy to University Circle. On the way, Ira made us stop at a market so he could buy a box of sugar cubes. When he came back out, Mom said, "Sugar cubes?"
"Well, I called the precinct this morning," Ira said, leaning against the market's plate glass window, "and they told me they were sending along thirty mounted pigs for intimidation purposes. I thought I could, you know, make friends with the horses. Here, why don't you take some? We can all feed the horses."
Mom looked as though Ira had suggested we all drink hemlock or something. "Nova isn't getting within a block of any mounted police." I probably looked as if I was about to whine, because Mom added, "Honey, it's not going to be like the petting zoo. Those horses could trample you to death." I didn't say anything, I just kicked at some pebbles on the ground.
"Well, okay. Shari, you got a pocket?"
But Shari said, "I'm sorry, baby, I'm going to kind of stay out of it today. I'll stick with Hilda and Nova and just watch."
"Why?" Ira couldn't believe it. "Jeez, I go away for two weeks and you turn into Little Miss Apolitical Hippie-Dippy Counterrevolutionary? Shar, your ass has been baking too many muffins over at Little Utopia with Mr. Stoned. There's a war on, did you forget?"
"That's not why, okay?" Shari grabbed Ira's hand. "Okay?"
Shari breathed deeply. "Can I tell you later?"
Ira shrugged. "I'll have to recruit me some likely-looking heads," he said, shaking off Shari's hand and zipping the box of sugar cubes into his backpack.
The demonstration was in the street by the hall where the orchestra plays, this very fancy old granite churchy-looking building. Mounted police ringed the demonstration area. Then there were I don't know how many sort of wild-looking people with long, messy hair, some of them with signs, just swirling around on the street and everyone shouting. With all those horses and the concert hall and everyone in beards, it was like a movie of the French Revolution,
except the extras were all wearing tie-dye.
Ira kissed each of us and said, "Gotta go recruit. See you at The Commodore," which was this hotel where we'd agreed to meet afterward. I watched him loping off into the crowd until Mom jerked on my leash for me to follow her and Shari.
Eventually the marshals came round with their bullhorns to get everyone organized. I couldn't hear what they were saying because Mom and Shari and I were watching from the steps of some building across the street. But all at once everybody just sat down, right in the middle of the street. Then some people got up on the steps of the orchestra place where there were microphones set up and started giving speeches. That sure was exciting. I looked around and fidgeted, and every couple minutes I would ask Mom if I could unbuckle my harness, at least for during the speeches, which annoyed the hell out of her because she was trying to listen. I wished I hadn't come.
Then Shari said, "Look, it's Ira! I didn't know he was going to speak. That must be why he wanted us to come."
"You think?" Mom said, shading her eyes to see better across the street. "It looks like the emcee fellow is arguing with him."
When whoever was speaking finished, Ira made a mad dash for the mic and grabbed it out of the speaker's hand before the emcee could get to it. With his mouth too close so his voice sounded all distorted and crackly, Ira panted, "Brothers and sisters--brothers and sisters! I'd like to extend a vote of thanks to the precinct for providing so many brave and courteous officers of the law to keep us safe and preserve order at our demonstration today." Everyone booed. "No, I'm serious, man! Now, I heard a rumor as I was walking around digging this
beautiful crowd, that some heads had plans to feed the police officers' horses electric sugar cubes." There was scattered cheering at this. "These officers are doing their best to keep everything under control. Once thirty horses start tripping hard, we're going to have total anarchy here. And, personally, I don't want one of those big stallions hallucinating that I'm a bucket of oats -- or, god forbid, a mare. So please, whoever you are, consider the safety of your brothers and sisters in struggle and don't be wasting good acid on the pigs!" He fitted the mic back into its cradle, saluted the emcee, who had been standing watching him looking hugely annoyed, then quickly ducked back into the crowd.
Mom said, "Oy, he's crazy! Shari, did you know that he planned to--"
"I didn't know," Shari said.
Of course I didn't understand what it was all about, so Mom explained. I still didn't really understand too good after she'd explained, although I do now. And can I just say that if I'd been one of those cops right then, I'd have been shitting in my pants. It wouldn't even have mattered if Ira had recruited anyone to feed the horses or not--none of the cops could be sure that some other cop's horse hadn't been slipped some acid. And if a likely-looking head had been feeding my horse sugar before Ira made his announcement, I'd have leaped right the hell off of it and let it see God far away from me.
Shari nudged Mom. "Oh come on, don't be mad at him, he's just being Ira."
Mom was all stiff and thin-lipped. "He's provoking confrontation! What if they start fighting? What if the cops open fire? That boundary's been crossed once. If anyone gets killed, Ira will be at least partly responsible. 'It's supposed to be peaceful,' my god-damned foot!"
Shari thought that over. "Should we split?"
"I think so," Mom said, and all the way to the hotel she kept looking behind her to see if a riot had broken out yet.
At the hotel, Mom finally let me take the harness off. Then Mom and I sat on a couch in the lobby to wait for Ira. We must have waited two hours; I tried to fall asleep but I wasn't tired. Shari was a wreck. Every five minutes she'd sort of burst out of the hotel and run a
little ways down the block to see if Ira was coming; when she didn't see him, she'd come back inside and slump on a couch. I swear she did that every five minutes. "Where is he?" she kept asking Mom. "You don't think they shot him, do you? Do you see him coming? Is he all right?"
He eventually showed up, his t-shirt all sweat-blotched, walking with the babiest little hint of a limp. Shari saw him first, through the hotel window. She bolted outside and flung herself at him. When Mom and I joined them, Ira was gripping Shari's forearms and gabbling at her: "--whipping rocks at them, and one pig got knocked off his horse. My leg, the pigs did the old cavalry charge maneuver to disperse the crowd, and I got knocked down by a horse, but I'm
okay. I'm okay! I'm super-groovy! It was a rehearsal, man. Every minor confrontation gets us one step closer to the final confrontation. Dig!" It was like someone had plugged him in,
he was so excited.
"I'm so glad you're alive!" Shari blubbered, and Ira pulled her to him and laid a big wet kiss on her that didn't look like it was ever going to end, until Mom said, "Okay, Nova, time to go."
Ira whipped his head around to Mom. "Go where? Where're you going?"
"Home," Mom said.
"Me too, we'll walk together. Come on, Shar." Ira put his arm round Shari and dragged her across the street. Mom grabbed my wrist so tight that it was sore the next day, and dragged me along behind them. She'd relaxed some at the hotel, but she was mad again now, even madder than before. Her lips were pressed so tight together it looked like she didn't have lips.
As they walked, Ira slid his hand all the way down Shari's back until it was resting on her
I was hardly lifting my feet to walk. I felt like being massively uncooperative all of a sudden. I hated that harness, I hated two hours on a boring couch, I hated demonstrations worse than--worse than peas. It wasn't fair I hadn't got to feed the horses. I didn't
want Ira to be touching Shari's butt.
We were just a couple blocks from his apartment. When we reached the doughnut store, we stopped and Ira said, "You coming in, Shari-Lou?"
"Well, yeah," she said, casting sort of doubtful looks up at the dark apartment windows. "I had something to tell you, remember?"
"Yeah, sure I remember," Ira said. He obviously didn't.
Shari looked up at the windows again. "Is--uh--you know--"
"Nah," Ira said, "Louise had to meet a contact. She said her ass wouldn't be back till dinnertime. We got lots of time, baby, heh-heh." He rubbed his hands together.
"I want to go in," I said.
The three of them turned and looked at each other. "Nova," Mom said, "uh, Ira and Shari haven't seen each other in a long time, and they need to talk in private, okay?"
"I want to go in," I said again.
Ira squatted in front of me and lifted off my batting helmet. "Hey Pres," he whispered, "not now, baby, okay?"
I could feel myself choking up. "I want to go in." I grabbed my helmet back. "I want to go
in!" Tears started pouring down my face.
Then Shari bent down and took my hand. "It's true what your Mom said, Ira and I really do
have stuff to talk about in private. But why don't you come up for a minute? Your Mom will wait outside for you, won't you?" she asked Mom. Mom shrugged and nodded. "It's okay for a minute, Ira, isn't it?"
Ira looked at the ground. "It would really be better if--" He looked up at Shari. "One
"Okay, sweetie?" Shari asked me.
I nodded and sort of sob-hiccuped.
Ira was still squatting there. He touched my cheek, then showed me my tear on his finger. "I got a wrench upstairs, we'll fix that leak on your face," he said. Then he grabbed me and stood up, and he was carrying me. "Shar, my keys," he said. "Feel around in my front pockets, I forget where--ooh, no babe, that's not my keys."
Shari unlocked the street door; Ira carried me upstairs and set me down outside the door to his apartment.
The apartment door opened into Ira's kitchen. It was stuffy and smelled like a combination of old doughnuts and a gas station. "Pee-you," I said.
Ira was busy shrugging himself out of his denim jacket. "Pee-you yourself," he muttered.
"She's right, it stinks in here," said Shari. "Did the stove go out or something? Oh, I have got to open a--"
"No!" Ira grabbed Shari's arm as she was stepping toward the window. "And leave the shades down too."
Shari stared at him. He was a black silhouette against the glowing window shade.
"Can I offer you something to drink?" Ira said brightly. "I still got some of that mint sun-tea you made." Ira lifted the top cup off a stack of Styrofoam cups that was sitting on the kitchen table. It was one out of about seven stacks of Styrofoam cups sitting on the kitchen
Shari said, "What's with all the cups, are you having a party? I don't want any tea, babe. And why won't you let me--"
We all heard the noise of a door opening inside the apartment, and the voices of a cat and a
chick in the hall. A second later, Sky-High Di and one of the Steves walked into the kitchen. Di was wearing her fatigue pants and a bra; Steve was naked except for a towel around his waist. This particular Steve was pale and had not-too-long, shaggy black hair and glasses with heavy, dark rims.
"I thought you said she wouldn't be back till..." Shari looked at Ira and trailed off. Ira's eyes were almost popping out of his head.
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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