A Good American, Part 3

by Jennie Litt



Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3


"Yo, Di, Louise, what the fuck are you doing with Steve's ass?"

"What do you think I'm doing with Steve's ass?" she shot back.  "And what's with the chicks?  You weren't supposed to bring them here. Where's Mama Bear? Off on a private sniffing tour of our cupboards and closets?"

"She's outside, and anyway I asked your ass first, sister."

Di sighed suddenly and looked terrifically bored.  She pulled her bra-strap down to examine a mole on her tit.  "Repeat after me:" she said, "the guerrilla cadre that fights together fucks together. Okay, class? One, two, three."  No one repeated after her, though.

Steve said, "Ira, man, you got to transcend this bourgeois sexual ownership trip you're on."

"You want to fight, Monahan?  Come on, let's fight together, then we'll see whose ass fucks whose ass!" Ira was clenching and unclenching his fists.

Di said, "Comrade, you are out of line.  What about these guests of yours?" She turned to Steve.  "Wasn't I just saying to you how he has, like, zero revolutionary discipline?  And that fucking kid, no less.  Just the right little nosy age to go poking under sinks. I told you how she walked in on Ira and I balling before?"

Ira turned suddenly and punched the door. Then, breathing hard, he slowly turned back and said, "Okay.  Okay.  You're right, Di, I'm wrong.  I was out of line.  And you're right, I shouldn't have brought them up here. I thought you weren't going to be home."

Di sighed again, as if what Ira had said was unbelievably stupid.  "Do you have any concept of the security risk?  Or can you only think with your dick? And what's with the kid? I don't even want to know."

Shari all of a sudden stepped right in front of Di. "I don't know who the god-damn hell you think you are, Miss Bomb-Head, but there is tea that I made in that refrigerator, and you are wearing my bra.  Maybe it's really bourgeois of me to be so hung up on material things, butif you want to talk politics, I think yours suck and I don't even think you believe them!  I have just as much right to be in this apartment as you do.  In case you forgot, I used to live here."

Di looked her up and down, with one of her eyebrows raised.  "Yeah, and where do you live now?"

Shari glared at her for a second, then snapped her head around to me. "Come on, Nova," she said, holding her hand out, "let's see what big bad Sky-High Di is hiding under my boyfriend's sink!"  She grabbed my hand and pulled me across the kitchen and threw open the little clicking cupboard doors under the kitchen sink. Behind us, Di, Steve, and Ira seemed frozen.

Inside the cupboard, in among the things of Comet and boxes of Brillo pads and stuff, several bottles filled with something that looked like some kind of mushy weird soup.  I felt Shari go totally stiff; I looked at her face, and I swear she looked like The Scream.

"What are you doing with those?" she finally whispered.

Di said, "What do you think?"  Ira and Steve just stood there with their mouths hanging open.

Shari pulled me back across the kitchen and was frantically turning the three different locks on the door back and forth in different combinations, trying to get the door unlocked, when Ira finally snapped out of it and cried, "You didn't see those!"  But just at that moment she'd got the door open, and she pushed me out in front of her and pulled me down the stairs at about a hundred miles an hour. I thought she had to throw up again, she was in such a hurry to get outside. When we reached the street door, she pulled it open, pushed me through, then collapsed on the stoop, breathing hard.  A moment later she looked up and waved weakly at mom, who was sitting on the steps of the Catholic church across the street, eating a doughnut.

Mom motioned for us to cross over.  "I'm surprised to see you," she said to Shari when we got there.

"Oh, you know, Louise was there," Shari said, and shrugged.

"That must have been uncomfortable for you, honey," Mom said.

Shari shrugged again. Then all the way home, she didn't say another word.

I wanted to ask Shari what was so bad about those bottles, but I kind of got the feeling they were supposed to be a secret, so I didn't ask.  I felt funny about that; I wasn't used to having a secret, especially from Mom.  It seemed the minute Sky-High Di showed up, everything started being a secret. I almost wanted to ask about the bottles just to get Sky-High Di in trouble, but I didn't want to get Shari or Ira in trouble by accident.

That night, there was a whole bunch of noise downstairs in the Art Co-op that woke me up: banging, men shouting, noise that sounded like stuff being thrown around and knocked over. I sat straight up in bed; my heart was going pow-pow-pow!   I was too scared not to go see what the noise was, but I didn't want to go in my pjs, in case of--well, just in case. So, real quickly, I pulled my demonstration outfit out of the dirty laundry and put it on.  I even put on the batting helmet.  Then I snuck to the top of the stairs where you can see down into the Art Co-op.

The Art Co-op was full of police and guys in regular suits making a mess from hell--dumping out drawers and closets, swiping whole shelves onto the floor, even slashing the couch cushions.  A bunch of them seemed to be dismantling The Finger office and packing most of it, all jumbled up together, into boxes. There was so much yelling that it took me a couple minutes to notice that Mom was yelling too, at a guy who I guessed was the head pig.  She was standing on the bottom step; he kept trying to shoulder past her, but she kept blocking him with her body.  And she was only wearing her kimono and flip-flops!  You've got to admire the woman.

I watched through the bars of the railing at the top of the stairs. I was shit-scared, but I wouldn't let myself cry. Instead I kept muttering, "Pigs, pigs, pigs," and told myself it wasn't happening, even though I knew it really was.

Eventually, Mom turned and started stomping up the stairs. The pig didn't follow her. Halfway up, she turned back around and shouted, "I hope you realize she's only seven years old!"  The pig shrugged, and pulled a pack of cigarettes out of his shirt pocket.  Mom stood still for a second, then let loose with a noise like her head had suddenly boiled. My stomach got all weird and kind of sick-feeling: they'd been arguing about me.

Mom saw me before she reached the top.  "Honey!" she whispered, and ran the rest of the way upstairs.

"Why are the pigs messing up everything?" I asked.

"The law enforcement officers," Mom said, very firmly. She kneeled in front of me. "They're just looking around. There's nothing here to interest them, though.  Now, I'm going to put on some clothes, and then you and I are going to ride in a car to an office. Okay?"

"What office?"

Mom closed her eyes. "The FBI office."

I said, "Did I do something?"

"No, honey, and don't worry, everything's going to be fine."

I wasn't convinced.  I was so scared I didn't even feel scared anymore. I just felt that weird sick feeling in my stomach, and this one other really strange sensation--sort of as if I had shrunk to the size of a dot and was locked inside a box locked inside another box and so on into infinity.

Mom tapped my batting helmet. "You won't need this."

About twenty police cars were parked outside, though the car they led us to was just a regular car. It was parked next to another regular car, which had Shari in the back; she was sobbing. Bob the muffin boy was shouting through the closed window at her, "Everything's gonna be okay! I love you, Shari!"  Mom gave him her car keys so he could follow us downtown.

Then I was in a little, brightly-lit room, and a young Southern guy in a check shirt was sitting behind a desk asking me questions. Mom wasn't allowed to come in the office with me; I'd left her, Shari, and Bob sitting on chairs in the hall. I didn't know whether the check shirt guy was a pig or not. He seemed like someone who'd lead tour groups of elementary school kids around a show farm, demonstrating how to milk a cow, then showing how wool is carded, and finishing up with a hay-ride. It wasn't just his shirt; it wasn't even his accent. He was nice--that was what confused me. And his questions weren't what I would have imagined pig questions would be: he asked me all about school, and what cartoons I watched, and which Monkee did I like better, Davy or Peter?

A weird thing was that the check shirt guy was wearing surgical gloves. There was a big sort of cylinder on his desk, taped inside several plastic bags.  As we chatted, he slowly unwrapped it. I wasn't too interested in the cylinder, though. I was showing the guy how to do alternate-nostril breathing from yoga class when I suddenly noticed that he'd finished unwrapping the cylinder and it wasn't just some cylinder at all: it was one of the bottles from under Ira's sink.

So that was what all this was about: Ira's bottles. The check shirt guy was a pig after all!  And somehow it was my fault we were all in trouble now -- why else would a pig be interrogating me? Oh, who was I kidding, there was no somehow about it; it was my fault because I'd kept a secret.  What was worse, I hadn't even kept the secret, even though I hadn't said a word to anyone, cross my heart and hope to die. The pig still knew, didn't he?

He winked. "Ya reckonize that, huh?"

What was I supposed to say? If I admitted I'd seen the bottle before, at least the secret would be out and I could stop feeling so nervous. The thing was, though, what if my admitting I'd seen the bottle caused more trouble?  But if I said I'd never seen it, wouldn't he know I was lying? After all, why would he ask me unless he knew I knew about it?

I looked at this snow globe on the pig's desk. It said "Michigan's Scenic Upper Peninsula" on it. I sounded out the words in my head.

"Look at me, pumpkin," the pig said. "Ya reckonize this?"

Finally, I nodded my head, just a little, real quick.

The pig said, "Whereja see it?"

I figured he probably knew anyway so I might as well say. "At Ira's."

"When?"

"Today. I mean yesterday. This afternoon." I was confused because it was the middle of the night.

"Ya know what it is, sugar-bun?"

I nodded.

"What?"

"Um..."  I said, "I don't know."

"It's a Molotov cocktail," he said.

I'd heard of Molotov cocktails. I knew they weren't the same as regular cocktails, like my grandparents in Beachwood used to mix in a shaker before dinner. I'd even had a sort of impression that a Molotov cocktail wasn't something you drank, but now I guessed that impression was wrong. Could it be an illegal drink, like Electric Kool-Aid? I noticed that it had crumbled-up pieces of Styrofoam cup in it, which didn't look very appetizing, but maybe the cup pieces were what got you really stoned.

That had to be it!

Then I didn't feel scared anymore. I felt exasperated, actually. Who cared if Ira had a bottle of drugs under his sink? Big deal! The Rock Courtiers grew dope in their closet, and one time Bob had given me a little broken-off corner piece of hash brownie that he'd baked (it had a funny taste). The check shirt guy wasn't just a pig, he was a square, too.

The pig asked me a few more questions I can't remember. Then he opened a drawer in his desk and pulled out a butterscotch Dum-Dum, one of those little lollipops you get at Halloween, and handed it to me across his desk. His fingers squeaked in the surgical gloves. "That's for being a good American," he said. Then I went into the hall and another pig escorted Shari into the check shirt pig's office.

Mom and Bob were sitting next to each other, holding hands. I sat next to Mom, and she took my hand, too. Nobody said anything. Mom's lips were thin again. Some cops stood nearby, watching us.

I kept remembering the pig saying, "That's for being a good American." At first, remembering it made me feel just slightly uncomfortable. Soon, though, I started feeling seriously uncomfortable. Much as I didn't want to admit it, wasn't it likely that if a pig was thanking me for being a good American, I must have somehow goofed? Maybe I shouldn't have admitted that I recognized the bottle. Even if it was just a bottle of drugs, drugs were still illegal; and after all, this was the FBI office. Maybe I ought to've lied. But wouldn't they do something really, really bad to me if I was caught lying to the FBI--like electrocute me? I had gotten us into more trouble, hadn't I? But how was I supposed to know what to do?  I was only seven years old! I once saw this play, Macbeth: in one scene, Queen Macbeth was staring at this dagger she'd killed some king with and having a mad guilt trip. That's how I was staring at the Dum-Dum.

Eventually the pig's door opened, and Shari came out, looking at the floor, her arms folded tight across her chest. From his office doorway, the check shirt pig signaled to the pigs who'd been guarding us.

"Come on, please, this way," they barked, and escorted us very fast through a bunch of halls into an elevator and out to a parking lot where Mom's car was.

Mom climbed into the back seat and pulled me onto her lap; Shari sat up front with Bob, who still had the keys.

Bob said, "You looked kinda mad when you came out of that room, Shari. What did that FBI cat say to you?"

Shari put her finger to her lips and shook her head.

"We can't talk?" Bob asked.

"Loose lips sink ships," said Shari.

"But we're in the car," Bob said.

Shari took a deep, quivery breath. "Well, either this car is bugged, or Ira's car, or the Art Co-op, or The Finger office, or Ira's apartment, or all of them, I don't know, but somehow the FBI knows everything about me." Her voice was loud and shaky.

"No kidding?" Bob said.

"He kept going, 'I don't understand why you're still trying to protect your boyfriend after he dumped you for that guerrilla babe with the big tits. Don't you have any self-respect, Charlene?' Fucking prick!  Then he tried to make me admit I'd seen bombs at the apartment.  He must have asked me forty times." She turned to look at me over the back of the seat. "Did they try to make you admit that you'd seen bombs at Ira's apartment, Nova?"

"No," I said.

"Huh." Shari chewed on the ends of her hair. "What did they ask you?"

I suddenly felt this feeling like a cold hand was squeezing my internal organs. Now what was the right thing to say? My secrets were suffocating me. "About the Monkees," I muttered finally. "And drugs."

Shari looked confused. "What do they think you'd know about drugs?"

The cold hand squeezed tighter. "I don't know," I whispered.

"You've been so brave tonight, honey," Mom said, and hugged me. I was all kind of stiff and awkward on her lap, though. Mom said, "Did you get any more information about tonight's incident, Shari?"

"Not anything we didn't already know."

"Why don't you switch on the radio, Bob?" Mom said.

Bob switched on the radio. It was playing "Everybody's Talkin'." I was like a paranoid schizophrenic: I thought the radio was broadcasting in a secret code the fact that I'd talked to the pigs and got us all into some kind of trouble that was so stone awful I couldn't even conceive of it. Everybody's talkin'!  God, I just wanted to be somebody else right then. Preferably somebody dead.

"Can you find some news, honey?" Mom said.

Bob fiddled with the tuner, but all there was was music.

"Well, it can't be that bad if there's no news on about it, right?" Shari said.

"Hopefully not, but it's too soon to tell," said Mom. "We don't even know for sure if Ira perpetrated the bombing. Hopefully there was only minor property damage. But you know, don't you, that a Nazi office is government property, even though it's on a college campus?  Which means a federal trial, assuming he goes to trial."

"But it's practically a fad, bombing your local Nazi office," Shari argued. "Why would it be that popular if it's so federal and everything when you get caught?"

Had I heard right?  Ira bombed the Nazi office? Mom was saying something about radical-baiting and Kent State, but I'd stopped listening. I was completely horrified. I kept seeing the Baron von Trapp's house in The Sound of Music when it has the big swastika banner on it, and Ira on the sidewalk out front, throwing a bomb at it. The bomb I imagined was like a small bowling ball with a wick coming out the top, that sputtered. Two things confused me, though: first, I didn't even know there were Nazi offices anymore; also, I was confused about where the Molotov cocktail came in. I guessed maybe Ira drank from it before he threw the bomb, the same way the Hell's Angels sometimes hung out in the Art Co-op parking lot before a ride, gunning their bikes and swigging from little flat bottles. Nazis were bad, I knew that--worse than Nixon even. But you couldn't just go around bombing them! What if they bombed you back? Bombing was dangerous. Bombing scared me. Bombing was wrong! It was very hard for me to love Ira right then.

Mom was saying, "What confuses me is, why was your fellow only interested in Ira? Guerrilla tactics were never his thing, particularly, before Louise showed up. Doesn't it seem counterintuitive that the Feds would go for him instead of her? And they seem to know all about her, too--from what you say, Shari."

"Oh, they probably just didn't ask us about her," Shari said. "Anyway, what could I tell them? That she's a fucked-up bitch? That's all I know about her. Did they ask you about her, Nova?" I shook my head.

Of course!, I thought. It was all her fault, that fucked-up bitch. She made him bomb the Nazi office. Now it all made sense. More importantly, now I could love Ira again. Poor Ira! I hoped the bomb hadn't hurt him.

Suddenly Bob cranked his window down. "You hear that?"

It was sirens--at least fifty of them, all going at once, getting louder and louder the closer we got to Case Western. When we reached the place where the demonstration had been that afternoon, Shari clapped her hands over her ears, and even Mom was wincing from the noise.  Police cars, ambulances, and fire-trucks crammed Adelbert Road. Those red lights that spin on the tops of police cars were making the buildings pulse red-dark, red-dark.

Bob slowed to a stop by the curb.

"My God," I heard Mom breathe, "the revolution has begun."

Shari turned around to Mom. "A lot of kids were planning stuff tonight to protest the shootings, I heard," she brayed "--a march, an all-night teach-in. I even heard about a guerrilla funeral event where they were going to bury four coffins behind Harkness Chapel."

Bob gunned the engine.  "It smells funky here."

"Don't touch the gas!" Mom shouted.  She'd unbuckled her seatbelt and was scrambling across the back seat to look out the passenger-side window.

I sat still, in the warm place Mom had vacated. I wasn't afraid of sirens exactly, but so many of them at once, and so loud, were definitely freaking my shit.

Then Bob yelled, "Hey, listen!  News!"  He turned the radio volume way up. A news announcer was saying, "--has sent a Cleveland firefighter into intensive care tonight. Shortly after ten p.m., a homemade bomb was lobbed into a basement window of Yost Hall, a building on the campus of Case Western Reserve University housing several floors of chemistry labs as well as the offices of the Reserve Officers' Training Corps. The blaze was small when the local fire department arrived shortly after ten-thirty. Tragedy struck when Lieutenant Stanislaus Rawicz, Junior, entered the building at the same moment intense heat caused stored chemicals to combust, seriously injuring Rawicz. Lieutenant Rawicz was rushed to University Hospital, where his condition is said to be critical. Firemen continue to battle the blaze. Police have arrested one suspect in the bombing: youth leader Ira Wolfman, editor of The Finger, a local Cleveland Heights newspaper."

Bob clicked off the radio.

The three of them all stared at each other. Shari was crying. "That's bad for Ira, isn't it?" she asked Mom.

"It complicates things," Mom said. She turned to look out the window again. So did Shari and Bob.

Of course I didn't understand the larger implications of the newscast, but the basics had pretty much come through. I wondered, what if I'd told Mom about Ira's bottles of drugs this afternoon? Would all this never have happened?  No pigs at the Art Co-op, no FBI office, no bomb, no fire, no fireman in the hospital?  Now Ira was in jail again, too, and I knew he'd get a longer sentence for bombing the Nazi office than he'd gotten for stealing newspapers. Was that my fault? Shari was hiccupping and sniffing in the front seat, and even Mom had this look on her face as if someone had snuck up behind her and bashed her over the head with a baseball bat. Was that my fault, too?

"Why did Ira bomb the Nazi office?" I asked.

"Not Nazi, honey, rotsie.  R-O-T-C," Mom said distractedly, still looking out the window.

I was too embarrassed to ask what a rotsie was.

Did you ever see the movie Performance? At the end of it, this secret agent guy, played by James Fox, shoots this rock star, played by Mick Jagger, in the head. As the bullet enters Mick's head, this sort of swirly red tunnel opens up, which the camera goes plunging through at about a thousand miles an hour. I felt like I was plunging through that swirly red tunnel right then: the swirly red lights, the sirens so loud they were making my ears buzz, the air so thick with the smell of something gassy burning that it was like trying to breathe with your mouth strapped to the back end of a car.

I wasn't alone in the tunnel: I kept imagining the pig there with me, going, "That's for being a good American, That's for being a good American.  Why couldn't he just shut up?

I rolled my window down about halfway: a gassy, smoky smell poured in, and the sirens sounded, unbelievably, even louder. I made sure Mom and Shari and Bob weren't looking at me, and then I slipped that fucking Dum-Dum out the window.

Mom scooched forward on the seat and nudged Bob. "Let's go."

A block or two was all it took for air to thin out to normal again, but the car stunk like a fire for weeks.

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3


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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